The compelling documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, from director Morgan Neville, shines a spotlight on the untold story of the back-up singers behind some of the greatest musical legends of the 21st century. Equal parts inspiring and heartbreaking, the film showcases the voices that shaped popular music, but rarely ever got credit for it. These gifted artists span a range of styles, genres and eras, each with their own unique and fascinating personal story of life spent in the shadows of superstardom.
At the film’s press day, filmmaker Morgan Neville spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how he got involved with this project, how researching back-up singers has made him listen to music differently now, the structure that he wanted to follow with the documentary, doing 10 months of editing, how the process compared to when he produced Pearl Jam Twenty, deciding which back-up singers to include, and the possibility of him branching out to do a narrative feature, in the future. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
MORGAN NEVILLE: I’ve done a lot of music docs. It was my producer’s idea. I have to give credit to Gil Friesen, who used to be President of A&M Records. Gil was a great record guy. He knew everybody, and had been retired from the industry. After watching a Leonard Cohen concert, who had amazing back-up singers, he just started thinking about back-up singers and their stories. When he looked around, he realized that nobody had ever done anything about back-up singers. There were no books, no movies, no websites, no nothing, which is amazing. I was stunned at how little had ever been done. I couldn’t even research the documentary because there was nothing to research. So, Gil met with me and he said, “I have this idea about back-up singers,” and I said, “That’s a really interesting idea. I know a lot about music, but I don’t really know much of anything about back-up singers. What’s the take? What’s the film? What’s the story?” And he said, “I don’t know. That’s your job.” So, the only way to figure out what the film was going to be was to interview a lot of back-up singers. I interviewed 50, off the bat, to do oral histories and figure out what I could. After that, I was like, “Okay, I know exactly what the characters, the themes and the stories are.” That was really invaluable. And I met most of the back-up singers in our film, out of those initial 50.
Was it one of those things where it was a subject you hadn’t thought about, but then, when it was brought up to you, you started hearing all music differently, after that?
NEVILLE: Oh, yeah, all the time. I was trying to reprogram my ear, so I just kept the radio on and would be like, “Of course, there’s that song I’ve heard a thousand times, but didn’t notice the back-up singers.” So, I started keeping an iTunes playlist and started collecting songs. Now, I hear music completely differently. I hear back-up vocals everywhere. I still keep discovering them in songs I didn’t know they existed in. Your brain really isn’t programmed to notice them. Even when it came time to research footage and photos and recordings, I had the hardest time finding anything. Even if there is a picture of a back-up singer, nobody ever says, “Here’s a picture of the back-up singer.” They say, “Here’s a picture of Mick Jagger,” and there happens to be a back-up singer in the background. Nobody ever catalogues or thinks about anything, in terms of that. It was always incidental. I had to do all of this incidental research to find anything on back-up singers. It was different.
Once you’d done all of those interviews and had seen the movie you wanted to make, how much did you go into the documentary with a structure that you wanted to stick to and how much do you have to just see where it takes you?
NEVILLE: In the broad sense, after having done all those interviews, I knew roughly what the shape would be, and I even wrote a treatment for Gil. It’s not that dissimilar from the finished film. However, that’s not to say that making the film or editing it was easy because it was incredibly difficult. The broad ideas and themes and structure was there, but the individual characters and stories took so much work to get done. Hands down, the hardest thing about making the film was editing because I fell in love with so many singers and songs, and only so much would fit. I kept having a math problem. There was too much good stuff, and it didn’t all fit. It was painful to cut out all the stuff I had to cut out. There were great singers that I interviewed that aren’t even in the film.
Do you hope you can put some of that on the DVD?
NEVILLE: Maybe, yeah. But, even that is only scratching the surface. Part of me feels like, if not me, somebody should do a sequel because there is so much more. And there are whole other worlds. I came up with a very specific definition of what the back-up singer would be for our film, just because I needed to focus it. Otherwise, it was way too broad. So, you could talk about Nashville and country back-up singers, you could talk about reggae and all the back-up singers they use, or you could talk about girl groups. I eliminated all of those and ended up focusing on what Lou Reed was singing about. That’s the essence I was trying to go for. But, that’s not to say that you couldn’t do a documentary about male back-up singers, or about white back-up singers. There were too many possible directions. I had to be ruthless about what it was that we were going to cover.
How long did the whole editing process take, and how much did you have to edit down?
NEVILLE: We did about 10 months of editing. The first cut wasn’t that long. It was maybe two hours. I like to be pretty disciplined about it. I don’t like having four-hour cuts. I feel like you’ve gotta make more decisions. It’s also a waste of time to edit four hours worth of scenes, knowing you’re only going to need 90 minutes worth of scenes. Lots of scenes came in and out. There were lots of characters that were in the film that came out, and vice versa. We had a lot of footage. Having done projects like Crossfire Hurricane with the Stones or the Pearl Jam Twenty documentary, talk about footage. There were thousands of hours of footage. We only had 800 hours of footage. Compared to Pearl Jam, it was nothing.
After you had so many different interviews, how did you decide which back-up singers to include?
NEVILLE: It was hard because I wanted to find a group of singers whose experiences echoed each other, but they came from different generations, they had different reactions to their experiences, and they connected with certain hit songs or certain big moments in music history. I had a tall order for what I wanted from characters. Through these characters in the background, you get the pop history. So, I had a few great characters who were too similar. I had another great legendary ‘70s singer that didn’t quite do what Merry Clayton did, and Merry was more perfect for the film, but she was really interesting. Her experience was just very much like Mary’s, and it was the same era, so I couldn’t have them both. I needed to pick one. I had to find characters that echoed each other’s experiences, which was not easy.
NEVILLE: I love documentaries. I love the format. I’ve been doing them for a long time. But, I have been thinking about doing narratives, particularly now. I have a lot of opportunities now, so maybe now is my chance. I don’t know. It’s interesting. We’ll see what’s next.
Do you know what type of film you’d want to do, if you made that step?
NEVILLE: It’s gotta be something rooted in the real world. That’s what interests me. I’ve produced two docs for Cameron Crowe and I’ve always loved him, as a filmmaker. I’m learning from people like him, and those are films that I feel like I could sink my teeth into. It would have to be in the real world, to some extent. The problem with a lot of narrative films is that they’re not real enough. Cameron is good at making them more real. Non-fiction or documentaries can tell any kind of a story because they don’t have to adhere to the rules of what’s possible. When you’re making something up, you have to say, “Well, this is what would happen here,” but in reality, stuff happens that seems impossible. I feel like there’s a randomness in real life that too many Hollywood movies just shave off. It feels too intentional, and life just isn’t that intentional. I like popcorn movies. I like entertaining movies. But, I feel like I could do something more in the real world.
20 Feet From Stardom is now playing in theaters.