Morgan Neville‘s Twenty Feet From Stardom, which I saw last night at a 10 pm Yarrow press screening, is a snappy, joyful, deeply emotional doc about the career agonies and ecstasies of soul-angel backup singers Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill (among others). The journo-buyer audience, usually reserved, applauded when it ended. It appears we have the first breakout of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival on our hands.
These ladies have belted out every backup “ooh, yayuh-yaaaay!” and “ooh-wah” and “babaaay!” you’ve ever heard. They’re all as rippin’ and soulful as any Aretha Franklin or Mariah Carey or whomever, but none has ever built a strong solo career. This is the melancholy that runs through Twenty Feet From Stardom, but Neville has crafted a killer tribute and brought back the spotlight.
Twenty Feet takes you back to every Motown and Phil Spector tune that ever mattered, to this and that Joe Cocker song, to David Bowie‘s “Young Americans” (“Aahhhhllll night!”) and especially to Clayton’s legendary solo on the Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter”…knockout stuff! The talking heads include Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler and Mick Jagger.
Yesterday afternoon at the Park City Marriot publicist Nancy Willen suggested that I might want to catch this, and I went “aahhh, I don’t know…backup singers? Doesn’t sound like my cup of tea.” An unfailingly polite and dutiful professional, Willen decided not to push it and moved on to some other films she’s repping…cool. But if you’ve got a winner, you should make it clear and push a little harder. Just because I said “aahh, I don’t think this is going to be much”…what do I know? It was just an instinct. Willen should have grabbed me by the lapels and said, “Look, Jeff, I like you but your instincts are wrong this time. Trust me. You really want to see this one.”
Luckily I ran into IFC Films’ Ryan Werner at the MARC and he talked me into it, and wow….loved it! A live-wire “yeahhh!”, an audience film, a winner.
Wells to Willen: Are Merry Clayton and Darlene Love and the others in town? Can I get a sitdown and/or a photo op? Is there a soundtrack CD?