Sundance: Backup singers earn spotlight on opening night
A&M executive’s passion project turns into a swan song.
Published: January 17, 2013 05:50PM
Updated: January 18, 2013 09:32AM
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Graham Willoughby | Courtesy Sundance Institute Singers Jo Lawry, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer are among the back-up performers who get the spotlight in Morgan Neville's documentary "Twenty Feet From Stardom."

Legendary A&M Records exec Gil Friesen got the idea for the film that became “Twenty Feet From Stardom” while attending a Leonard Cohen concert with his wife.

When the show began, Friesen smoked a joint, then found himself musing about Cohen’s talented backup singers — who they were and what their lives were like.

Later, he called it “the most expensive joint I’d ever smoked,” as he bankrolled filmmaker Morgan Neville’s documentary that is one of the opening-night films at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Friesen died Dec. 13.

“Gil was an amazing guy,” Neville said in a phone interview. “He was a real gentleman in the music industry. He was the ampersand in A&M music.”

But amid all of the mourning, there’s a lighter note. “He knew that the film had gotten into Sundance, and he was thrilled,” said Neville, who was at Sundance in 2011 with “Troubadours,” a documentary about the nascent singer-songwriter movement in Southern California in the early 1970s. “His wife, family and friends are coming.”

Shining a spotlight on undiscovered musicians was an integral part of Friesen’s work, so it’s appropriate that his final labor of love was a film that feted backup singers, the most underappreciated musicians in the industry.

“[Friesen] came on all the shoots,” said Neville, also a producer of HBO and The Rolling Stones’ “Crossfire Hurricane,” to be released on DVD this month, and Cameron Crowe’s brilliant “Pearl Jam Twenty” retrospective. “We talked every day.”

Bette Midler, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and Sheryl Crow were interviewed for the film, but the focus remains on the backup singers. Neville said some of the singers were happy to sit down and talk with him, but didn’t want to be shot on camera.

“That doesn’t happen in our culture,” said Neville, still amazed at the restraint in a reality-TV culture where everyone, it seems, wants to be a star.

But those who did talk included:

• Merry Clayton, who sang on Carole King’s “Tapestry” and Lynryd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” and is most famous for being featured prominently in The Rolling Stones’ frightening powerhouse “Gimme Shelter.”

• Lisa Fischer, who currently tours with The Rolling Stones and has sung with Sting and Chris Botti.

• Judith Hill, who was booked to back up Michael Jackson on his “This Is It” concert series at London’s O2 Arena before his death. She ended up performing as a lead vocalist in Jackson’s memorial service, with an estimated 1 billion people watching her sing “Heal the World.”

• Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Darlene Love, who before an acclaimed solo career was a member of the Blossoms, who sang on dozens of Top 40 tracks in the 1960s and was an important brick in creating Phil Spector’s famous Wall of Sound production style.

“[Spector] always did things to stop my momentum,” said Love, 71, who was so important to Spector that he threatened her livelihood if she ever left his studio.

In a phone interview, Love said various people approach her all the time to have her participate in film projects. She usually responds, “Oh, this is cute. Where is this going?” before politely declining.

She had the same blasé reaction when she was approached by “Twenty Feet From Stardom” until Dick Donner (director of “Superman: The Movie” and the “Lethal Weapon” franchise, in which Love portrayed Danny Glover’s wife) and Lou Adler (record producer, manager, director, owner of the famous Roxy Theatre, who often sits with Jack Nicholson during Lakers games) persuaded her to take a meeting with Friesen. That’s when she realized that this would be an important project for an important man and decided to sit for interviews.

“[Friesen] didn’t live long enough to see the fruit,” Love said.

dburger@sltrib.com

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‘Twenty Feet From Stardom’ screenings

Jan. 17, 9:30 p.m. • Eccles Theatre, 1750 Kearns Blvd., Park City

Jan. 18, 9 a.m. • Temple Theatre, Highway 224, Park City

Jan. 18, 9 p.m. • Sundance Resort Screening Room, North Fork, Provo Canyon, Sundance Resort

Jan. 19, 3:30 p.m. • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. Broadway (300 South), Salt Lake City

Jan. 21, 11:45 a.m. • Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St., Park City

Jan. 25, 8:30 p.m. • The MARC, 1200 Little Kate Road, Park City