Unsung Heroes: 'Twenty Feet from Stardom' Hails the Singers behind the Hits
by Ron Deutsch
Documentary Magazine, Summer 2013
For nearly two decades, Morgan Neville has defined himself as one of the most prolific documentary producer/directors of American pop culture. Beginning with his 1995 film Shotgun Freeway, which imagined a history of Los Angeles through the eyes of its denizens like James Elroy and Buck Henry, Neville has explored the lives and work of such artists as Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, James Brown, James Taylor, Iggy Pop and a host of others. His latest film,Twenty Feet from Stardom, profiles the unsung songstresses of rock 'n' roll—the backup singers you've heard but not heard of.
"What I realized early on is that telling the unfamiliar story behind the familiar is something that has always been of interest to me," Neville maintains. "Even going back to Shotgun Freeway. It was a way of retelling LA history from a kind of microscopic point of view. Everybody has an idea of Hollywood or LA history, but let's find out what the invisible history is about it, so when you think about LA, you will think about it differently.
"That's certainly been happening with Twenty Feet from Stardom," Neville continues. "It changed how I hear music and hopefully it changes the way others will. I spent a couple of years while working on this with the radio on, suddenly hearing vocals in songs I've heard a thousand times and realizing just how they were constructed and how important those background vocals were. Being able to take a song and share it anew—I love that. It just adds so much more depth to things we take for granted."