From Backup to Big Screen: 'Twenty Feet From Stardom' Has Its Moment

Documentaries do not have press junkets. That's for scripted studio films with stars, big budgets and the potential to pull in eight or nine figures at the box office.

Yet on June 7, director Morgan Neville gathered in Los Angeles with four of the stars of "Twenty Feet From Stardom"-Merry Clayton, Tata Vega, Claudia Lennear and Judith Hill-to discuss the making of a documentary about the heyday of background singing and the lives being led by singers who were once the best in the business. Bookending the junket were premieres in L.A. on June 6-with Clayton, Hill and the Waters Family singing-and New York on June 8-with Darlene Love as the featured act-that re-created the combination of a film and live concert experience seen at the Sundance Film Festival in January, South by Southwest (SXSW) in March and other film festivals.

"Twenty Feet From Stardom" is the first music film positioned to step into the footprint of "Searching for Sugar Man," which won this year's Academy Award for best documentary and has earned $3.7 million in domestic box office since its release on July 27, 2012, according to figures compiled by Box Office Mojo. Both are significant, moving chronicles of lives spent away from the spotlight with moments of reflection and redemption that ultimately reward a movie-goer's investment in the story. And they have had similar paths-both premiered at and were purchased by distributors at Sundance, the musicians featured in both performed at BMI's annual Ice Ball, and their soundtracks are on Sony labels.

A key difference is that "Sugar Man" is the story of an outsider told by an outsider-its subject, Sixto Rodriguez, was a relative unknown in the United States before the movie's release. "Twenty Feet" is an insider's job, conceived by a former A&M president and centering on the voices heard on such legendary recordings as "Gimme Shelter" (Clayton) "He's a Rebel" (Love) and "Brown Sugar" (Lennear). Of course, those voices are better-known than the names, but both the songs and the singers give "Twenty Feet" marketing and promotion opportunities, particularly when it comes to live performance.

"It's a distributor's dream to have a live component," Radius-TWC co-president Tom Quinn says, "and we've been able to work that in every time we have screened the film. Wherever possible, we want to create a 360-degree experience beyond the screen. I don't think we have seen all of the ways this story will continue to play out. Some of the women are being booked now to perform live and other women who haven't been singing are starting to sing again. We're only at the early stages of what can happen."

Columbia to Release 'Twenty Feet' Soundtrack on June 18

Quinn and Jason Janego, his partner at Radius, the boutique label within the Weinstein Co., see the film more in line with "Buena Vista Social Club," "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" or even the scripted "Dreamgirls": The key is narrative. "We're so incredibly impressed with Morgan and [producer] Gil Friesen and the way they told the story," Janego says. "It's such a difficult process to put that together in a way that makes sense onscreen."

Former A&M Records president Friesen was struck with the germ of the idea while at a Leonard Cohen concert at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in 2009. He was moved by Cohen's three backup singers, wondering about their lives, their stories and aspirations. The questions stuck with him, but he found as he talked with others in the music industry that few had much to say on the subject. He saw there was a story to be told.

It was Friesen's friend Jimmy Buffett who gave the project a name. When the two were talking about a film about backup singers, the "Margaritaville" singer responded, "Like 20 feet from stardom, right?" Not long after, Neville-a producer on the Rolling Stones' "Crossfire Hurricane" project and director of numerous music documentaries for PBS, Biography and A&E-entered the picture. "When I met with Gil it was, 'We've got a great title-"Twenty Feet From Stardom"-and it's about backup singers. Figure out what it is,'" Neville says. "There was no mission statement beyond that."

As Neville attempted to do research, he hit an immediate dead end. "There were no books, no websites, hardly even any articles, which surprised me. So the only way I could figure out what the film could be would be to interview a lot of backup singers," Neville says. By necessity his research became extensive, as he built what amounted to the primary source history of backup singing. "It took 50 oral histories to figure out which stories worked, who the characters were and what would be the themes. After we did that, I wrote a treatment that was essentially the blueprint for the film."

Bruce Springsteen is the first frontman to offer his thoughts on the roles backup singers play, and he's followed by Mick Jagger, Bono, Sting, Bette Midler and others. Love provides a starting line for the story, and her career-starting with Phil Spector in the early '60s, and including work with Midler, U2 and Cher, as well as a stint on Broadway in the '80s-provides a narrative arc for the film, as Clayton and Lennear enter with the Stones in the '60s and '70s, Lisa Fischer with the Stones since 1989 and Hill (known to TV audiences as a contestant on this season of "The Voice") in the 2000s with Michael Jackson for "This Is It."

"I was the one they came to first," Love told Billboard at SXSW. "Gil called and I thought it was a great idea, but I had no idea where they were going to go. You have to take a leap of faith in just about everything you do in this business. Gil and Morgan had real foresight to take this where they would take it."

The commonality between the film's stars and the five or so secondary characters was musical training in the church, session work as their first jobs and attempts to turn them into solo artists. Nearly all were American and the stories that didn't quite fit the mold-Rose Stone, Martha Walsh and Stevvi Alexander, for example-remained in the edit suite.

"People would say, 'Why don't you talk to Nashville singers, or do a part about girl groups or reggae?'" Neville says of the early responses from friends while he was assembling the film. "I interviewed one of James Brown's longtime backup singers, Amy Christian. I really liked her and her story, but her experience was so different than what the others went through. I interviewed Cissy Houston, and I kept trying to wedge her into the cut because she's Cissy Houston. And every time it just didn't make it better."

"Twenty Feet From Stardom" opened Sundance on Jan. 17 and within 24 hours Radius' bid had beaten IFC and Magnolia. Two days later, Elle Driver/Wild Bunch secured international rights. On Jan. 24, Neville arrived at breakfast after finally getting a full night of sleep following days of meetings, negotiations and screenings. He had one call he needed to return, to Columbia Records senior director of creative licensing Jonathan Palmer, who had just arrived at the festival and was already inquiring about soundtrack rights.

At a Sundance Q&A, an audience member asked Neville if there would be a soundtrack. Neville, knowing Palmer was in the audience, put him on the spot and asked, "Will there be?"

"Thankfully I loved the movie and shouted its praises when I returned to the office," says Palmer, whose enthusiasm for the project was warmly met by Columbia president Ashley Newton. "I saw a lot of pieces that people would want to get their hands on. We created a soundtrack that reflected the storytelling of the film rather than a jukebox collection of the hits in it. The attractive element was this wealth of new material. Judith's original song 'Desperation' is fantastic. The gospel number 'Nobody's Fault but Mine' and 'Lean on Me' are beautiful."

The result is the first film soundtrack Columbia is releasing this year. Coincidentally, the movie is the first one that Radius, an alternative distribution specialist, is putting in theaters prior to going to home entertainment. And for Neville-whose credits as a producer/director include films on the Stones, Pearl Jam, Carole King, James Taylor and Elton John and Leon Russell-this is his first theatrical film.

"I can't wait to see where we are at the end of the summer," Radius' Quinn says. "What this film will do, where these women's careers end up-Judith Hill on 'The Voice,' we didn't see that happening when we were at Sundance. Several of these women are putting together new works, and we're thrilled to help them with their careers reissuing records. Here's this tribute to these women's careers and, potentially, there's a new audience for these incredible women."