You’ve seen them but not noticed them. You’ve heard them but not listened to them. The documentary “20 Feet From Stardom” shines a spotlight away from center stage over to the world of female backup singers.
Directed by Morgan Neville, the film looks most specifically at the lives and careers of six women — Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Claudia Lennear and Judith Hill — who span generations of music and have worked with a broad spectrum of artists, including the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Phil Spector, Stevie Wonder, Sting, and Ike and Tina Turner.
The movie has helped to push its subjects further into the spotlight many of them have never before seen. Hill, recently a contestant on “The Voice,” performed a song from the film on “The Tonight Show.” Love was interviewed for the first time on “Late Show” after singing there for many years. A “Best of Merry Clayton” is being released. Lennear is looking to get a new band together.
“To make a film about a group of people that maybe didn’t have the opportunities and catch every break they should have, and then have that film provide those opportunities is something I could never have allowed myself to imagine happening,” Neville said. “But it is actually happening, and that’s the biggest reward.”
The film was the idea of Gil Friesen, former president of A&M Records and executive producer of films such as “The Breakfast Club” and “Better Off Dead.” While at a Leonard Cohen show, he was struck by the background singers and realized their world had never been explored.
Having never produced a documentary before, Friesen came to Neville, a longtime director and producer of such music-related docs as the Carole King/James Taylor film “Troubadours” and the Rolling Stones bio “Crossfire Hurricane.”
Friesen had an idea and a title.
“When I said, ‘Backup singers are interesting, but what’s the film going to be?’ he said, ‘I have no idea; that’s your job.’ It was really unchartered territory,” Neville said of their initial conversation.
Neville and Friesen interviewed dozens of background singers as they shaped the story. From there, Neville wrote up a treatment of what he thought the rest of the film could be. Though he was initially concerned the film would be a downbeat look at failure to achieve, in the perseverance of his subjects Neville found something more.
“The breakthrough to me was that the film is not about trying to go solo and trying to achieve your dreams and not making it,” said Neville. “It’s about the third act of the film, what happens when you don’t achieve your dreams and how the measure of a person is how they dealt with that. That’s the deeper thing to me.”
Neville said that Lennear was perhaps the most difficult subject for him to find. Though she had enjoyed relative fame while a member of the Ikettes with Ike and Tina Turner, later releasing a solo album in 1973 and appearing in the 1974 film “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” Lennear left the music business in the early 1980s to become an educator.
“I had just kind of dropped off the face of the earth, but this movie has allowed many of us to resurface,” Lennear said.
“What’s really curious about it is that all of us went through the same sort of things, we all shared so many experiences that we didn’t know we were sharing at the time. But now we’re finding out, ‘Wow, that happened to me too.’ I have learned a lot from the movie.”