A woman, visibly moved by the stories in Morgan Neville’s “Twenty Feet From Stardom,” stood to ask a question of the director and five backup singers after midday screening of the documentary. She thanked them for their honesty in the film and tried to hold back tears while saying “I moved to New York to become a singer. I gave up on my dream.”
The power of Neville’s work, a chronicling of the lives of background singers who sang on era-defining records from the 1960s into the 1990s, is such that it transcends the typical music documentary. There are six or seven lives at the story’s core, but it ultimately speaks to issues of fulfillment, tenacity, talent, rejection and redemption. As a music story, it takes the ordinary and transforms it into the exceptional. As a film, it’s an emotional loop de loop, a picture that elicits gasps of disbelief, spontaneous applause and tears. It’s a winner.
Sundance, which consistently has strong documentary lineups, had a half-dozen films that could be considered music-driven at this year’s festival. The two with the highest profiles, Dave Grohl’s “Sound City” and “History of the Eagles, Part One,” are headed to a limited theatrical run and Showtime, respectively. A Pussy Riot film is bound for HBO; “Narco Culturo,” which follows the musicians and rappers who write songs as tributes to drug lords, snagged an international sales agent in K5 International. “Mussel Shoals,” Greg Camalier’s thorough and potent documentary about the soul and rock records that came out of two Alabama studios in the ’60s and ’70s, is still looking for a distributor.
The Weinstein Co. will make sure “Twenty Feet From Stardom” gets seen. It’s strong enough that the company could hold back until the fourth quarter and release it as a prestige product and position it for award consideration. It could also go out as a late-spring release before the popcorn fare invades the multiplexes; positioning it as summertime counter-programming may be too much of a stretch.
If it secures slots in other film festivals, SXSW seems like a natural fit and Cannes would be an impressive credit for the poster, the fall would seem like a perfect time to open.
“Twenty Feet,” with a goal of exposing the names and faces behind the voices every music fan knows, has a few qualities that give it a chance at mainstream acceptance. A few:
1) The stories: The focus is on five female singers, all of whom learned to sing in the church. Their stories begin in similar places and all have their crash landings, but each is unique and inspirational.
2) The experts: Bruce Springsteen is the first voice heard in the film and his observations are priceless. Stevie Wonder, Sting and Mick Jagger reinforce the importance of the backup singer’s role.
3) The music: One iconic song after another. Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” “He’s a Rebel.” “Gimme Shelter.” “Sweet Home Alabama.” “Feelin’ Alright.” “Bad Girls.” “Circle of Life.” “Lean on Me.”
4) The emotion: Heartbreak and elation run side-by-side throughout the film; very easy for audiences to relate to.
5) A broad target audience: The peak period covered runs from the early 1960s to the middle of the 1970s, an era that fans and students of culture have been fixated on for decades. The profession of background singing fizzles in the early 1990s so there is enough time passed to allow for historical reflection. The people who remember these songs will be between the ages of 30 and 65, a demographic sweet spot for documentaries.
Record geeks will wonder what some of the fuss is all about. Merry Clayton and Claudia Lenner’s name were printed on the Rolling Stones albums; Darlene Love’s ups and downs and discography with Phil Spector have been widely chronicled; “This is It” brought a spotlight to Judith Hill; and Lisa Fischer is as known as Bobby Keys to Stones concert-goers over the last 24 years.
It’s the story of the dreams, though, that resonates. The idea that the job you excel at is somehow not enough to aspire to, that there has to be something more according to the people around you, strike a nerve. And when the light on your future goes out — and there’s no way to make a U-turn because of circumstances beyond your control — again, Neville has hit on a universal theme.
Searching for the next “Sugar Man”? Try “Twenty Feet From Stardom.”