"Twenty Feet From Stardom" director Morgan Neville admitted he was nearly in tears seeing the subjects of his documentary on back-up singers gathered at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday night. Seeing the singers -- Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega and Judith Hill -- in one room was "a mindblower" he said, made all the important since the December death of the film's producer, Gil Friesen.
"Twenty Feet" is one of the festival's most talked-about and well-liked films, evidenced by it wrapping a domestic and a foreign deal since it premiered Jan. 17. (The Weinstein Co. has the U.S.; Wild Bunch will be selling it internationally).
The singers were the centerpiece of the Sundance Institute Film Music Program's annual Celebration of Music in Film, held at the Kimball Art Center on Jan. 20. The Fray opened the evening, performing their own work and, as a nod to the film world, a cover of Bruce Springsteen's Oscar-winner "Streets of Philadelphia." Peter Golub, director of the Sundance Institute Film Music Program, and Tracy McKnight, the head of music at Lionsgate, produced the event.
Considering that every packed public space in Park City is a schmoozefest during the festival, Sunday's concert performance was watched with an out-of-place respectfully silent and attentive audience that included film producer Sid Ganis; the director and producer of music documentary "Mussel Shoals" Greg Camalier and Stephen Badger; BMI VP Doreen Ringer-Ross; First Artists Management's Robert Messenger; and Disney executive VP Scott Holtzman.
Before the show, the focus of nearly every conversation overheard was on the quality of the music documentaries at this year's festival, whether it be the Pussy Riot film, Dave Grohl's "Sound City" or "Mussel Shoals." "Music is always a component at Sundance," Badger said, "and there's always more than one story to tell."
In the case of "Twenty Feet," Vega said the film is about more than singers - "its about all of us with dreams. ... People who have been stepped on."
The concert itself was quite spectacular. Merry Clayton delivered a stunning gospelized rendition of Bob Dylan's "The Times They are a-Changin'," opening a cappella and slowing it to a crawl. Vega turned James Brown's "It's a Man's, Man's Man's World" into a theme of female empowerment. Lisa Fischer wowed with a jazzy take on "I Loves You, Porgy" and Darlene Love stuck with her Phil Spector hits, "Today I Met the Boy I'm Gonna Marry" being the sharpest.
Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready backed Clayton as she took lead on perhaps her most famous backing vocal, the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." As a tribute to Friesen, the singers closed with an impromptu version of Bill Withers' "Lean on Me," with Neville joining the group on the chorus.
The singers were scheduled to make one more public appearance, speaking on a panel after a daytime screening Monday (Jan. 21).