“Twenty Feet from Stardom”: Documentary Places Backup Singers Front and Center

By Titus Falodun Staff Writer | 7/12/2013, 5:21 p.m.
Behind soft lips and infectious smiles, backup singers hide their unheralded voices and unforgettable stories.
Darlene Love, backup singing trailblazer, shines on screen in the refreshingly nostalgic music documentary "Twenty Feet from Stardom," which is playing now at local theaters in Atlanta. (Photo by RADiUS-TWC).

Love displays the insatiable fire that burns within the soul of those who the spotlight overshadows.

Interspersed sad stories and timeless tunes make “Twenty Feet from Stardom” a refreshing breath of nostalgia for any music or film lover.

The film was a novel idea of former A&M Records president and the film’s producer Gil Friesen. He tirelessly searched to find someone who could make his vision real.

Friesen finally told Neville the idea. And Neville found it very interesting. But there was still one pressing question.

“What’s the story, I said’” Neville recalled.

Friesen responded to Neville, saying, “I have no idea. That’s your job.”

On the first day of filming, Neville would find his answer.

“We interviewed Darlene Love on our first day,” Neville said. “And after we did that interview, I turned to Gil and said, ‘We can always do a Darlene Love documentary.’ We just kept having moments like that.”

Fifty-plus interviews, two years and countless music licensing acquisitions later, “Twenty Feet from Stardom” came to fruition.

“It was because of Gil and his belief of the project that powered us through,” Neville said about his late friend and dear colleague.

During the project, Friesen was battling cancer. But even in his last days, he had high hopes for the film.

Friesen saw the film’s final cut prior to passing away last year on December 12.

“The film was one never-ending sense of joy and pride to him,” Neville said. “He told me, with his black sense of humor, ‘Everybody with cancer should have a documentary that they’re working on, because it’s such a wonderful distraction.’”

According to Neville, “Twenty Feet from Stardom” is not about the history of backup singing; it is not an anthology. From singing backup for the late icon Michael Jackson, to voicing “Lion King” and “Avatar” soundscapes, it’s a narrative about people, who take pride in their work.

“Music documentaries, I think of them as a Trojan Horse,” Neville said. “People know or like the music. And they go in thinking they’re going to get a story about the music, but through that you can bring in a whole lot of different stories: race, gender, Civil Rights.

The music opens the door.”

Most of us are not stars and we all face similar ups and downs like backup singers. We understand their experiences more than we understand those of a rock star. And in a way, “Twenty Feet from Stardom” teaches us how to live contently with our roles in life.

Despite critical acclaim and award season buzz, Neville’s greatest hope is rather selfless but in tune with the women in the film.

“I hope the women in the film can tour together,” Neville said. “I think that would be a really amazing concert. There’s no substitute for true talent, as much as we try to pretend there is in our culture. It’s something organic.”

“Twenty Feet from Stardom” is playing now at local theaters in Atlanta.

Go here to see the trailer, www.TwentyFeetFromStardom.com.