Legendary A&M Records exec Gil Friesen told filmmaker Morgan Neville where he received his idea for the film “Twenty Feet From Stardom.”
Friesen, with his wife, was in the audience of a Leonard Cohen performance several years ago. When the show began, Friesen smoked a joint, and then found himself musing about Cohen’s talented back-up singers — who they were and what their lives were like.
Months later, he called it “the most expensive joint I’d ever smoked,” as he bank-rolled the Neville-directed documentary that is the opening-night film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Sadly, Frieson died last month on 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 is a light. “He knew that the film had gotten into Sundance, and he was thrilled,” Neville said. “His wife, family and friends are coming.”
Shining a spotlight on under-appreciated musicians was an integral part of Friesen’s life, so it is poignantly appropriate that his final labor of love was a film that feted the most under-appreciated musicians in the industry: back-up singers.
“[Friesen] came on all the shoots,” Neville said. “We talked every day.”
It was Friesen’s connections that helped Neville, an award-winning filmmaker who was last at Sundance for his film “Troubadours,” a documentary about the nascent singer-songwriter movement in southern California in the early 1970s. (Neville’s other productions include HBO and The Rolling Stones’ “Crossfire Hurricane” and Cameron Crowe’s brilliant “Pearl Jam Twenty” retrospective.)
Bette Midler, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and Sheryl Crow all submitted to interviews for the film, but the real stars are back-up singers profiled in the film. In an aside, Neville said some of the back-up singers he talked to were happy to sit down and talk with them, but never wanted to be shot.
“That doesn’t happen in our culture,” said Neville, still amazed at the restraint in a world where everyone wants to be on film in their own reality series.
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 sang for 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 Jackson’s death. She ended up performing as a lead vocalist in Michael Jackson’s memorial service, with an estimated one billion people watching her sing “Heal the World.”
• And, not least, 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, in a phone interview, who was so important to Spector that he threatened her livelihood if she ever left his studio.
Love said she is approached all the time by various people who approach her to have her participate in film projects. She usually responded, “Oh, this is cute. Where is this going?” before politely declining.
She had the same blasé reaction when she was approached by the filmmakers until Dick Donner (director of “Superman: The Movie” and the “Lethal Weapon” franchise, in which she portrayed Danny Glover’s wife)and Lou Adler (record producer, manager, director, owner of the famous Roxy Theatre, and usually seen at Jack Nicholson’s side during Lakers games) convinced her to take a meeting with Friesen. When she talked to Frieson, she realized that this was an important project for an important man, and decided to sit down for interviews.
“[Griesen] didn’t live long enough to see the fruit,” Love said.
“Twenty Feet From Stardom”
Jan. 17, 9:30 pm, Eccles Theatre, 1750 Kearns Blvd., Park City
Jan. 18, 9 a.m., Temple Theatre, Located on 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“Twenty Feet From Stardom”