Yesterday I spoke to Morgan Neville, the veteran documentarian who’s been riding the high of a lifetime since 20 Feet From Stardom ignited 11 months ago at the Sundance Film Festival. A bliss-out by any yardstick, 20 Feet is now one of the 15 shortlisted docs that may become a finalist at the 2014 Oscars. Partly or largely because it reflects Morgan’s music-industry fervor and his amiable alpha-guy vibe. Conversationally he’s cool and down-to-it. We covered the usual bases, had a nice easy chat.
Dana Williams (I think), Judith Hill, Tata Vega, Merry Clayton, Morgan Neville at last January’s Sundance Film Festival.
The most important thing to get about 20 Feet From Stardom is that it’s not just a film about backup singers Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, Claudia Lennear and Tata Vega. It’s a story about dealing with the frustration of not being fully heard, of not quite reaching your goals, of having to grim up and persevere for decades until it finally happens. The “it”, semi-ironically, is Neville’s film. The acclaim for 20 Feet plus the Oscar attention has put these ladies — all back-up singers in a sense — over in a big way.
Proof will come on New Year’s Day when the best-known of the four — Love, Clayton, Hill and Fischer — sing “The Star Spangled Banner” before the big game between….hold on…need a second…between the Stanford Cardinals and Michigan State Spartans. If this doesn’t rouse slumbering Academy members who still haven’t popped in the 20 Feet screener then I don’t know what.
Weinstein/Radius has invited me to attend both the rehearsal and the actual Rose Bowl performance. I might just do that. I’ve never been to the Rose Bowl, not even for a swap meet. And college football…me?
“20 Feet From Stardom 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 [the film], but Neville has crafted a killer tribute and brought back the spotlight.
“20 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.”
Again, the Wells-Neville mp3