'20 Feet From Stardom' Gets Its Turn in Oscars' Spotlight

How legendary record man Gil Friesen's documentary about backup singers wowed the film world

Twenty Feet From Stardom Jo Lawry, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer
RADiUS-TWC/Courtesy Everett Collection
Jo Lawry, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer in 'Twenty Feet From Stardom'
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Darlene Love has a mighty voice, but yesterday she really let it rip. At her home in New Jersey, she'd just finished her regular morning meditation and settled in to watch some of the Oscar nominations on TV. And at one point, she says, "I just screamed! My husband was in the other room and said, 'What? What?' Now they can put 'Oscar nominee' next to my name along with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."

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In one of the most pleasant surprises in yesterday's telecast, 20 Feet From Stardom, Morgan Neville's acclaimed film about the lives and often tough times of some of pop's most vital backup singers, became one of five nominees in the documentary category. The film, conceived and produced by the late Gil Friesen, the renowned president of A&M Records, will be competing against The Act of Killing, Cutie and the Boxer, The Square and Dirty Wars

Friesen – who worked with the Police, Carole King, Cat Stevens and many others during his tenure at A&M – got the idea for 20 Feet From Stardom when he attended a Leonard Cohen concert and became fascinated with Cohen's backup singers. Having already been involved in film (he executive-produced The Breakfast Club in 1985), Friesen threw himself into the project, which was clearly a labor of love. He was able to see a final cut shortly before his death from leukemia, at age 75, in December 2012. "In the beginning, he was saying, 'We'll win an Oscar!'" Neville recalls with a fond chuckle. "And I thought, 'Gil, there's no way that's ever going to happen!' But I have to say, Gil foresaw this more than we did. He always knew how to pick a hit."

One of the most buzzed-about films of the 2013 Sundance Festival,  20 Feet From Stardom chronicles the lives and careers – the hopes, dreams and often dashed expectations – of some of pop's greatest background singers, including Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega and Claudia Lennear. The film digs deep into the roles they played (sometimes anonymously) on everything from classic Phil Spector productions to rock anthems like "Gimme Shelter" and "Sweet Home Alabama," as well as their often frustrating efforts to break out on their own. Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Mick Jagger and Stevie Wonder are among the many musicians seen testifying to the women's contributions to pop. Rolling Stone's Peter Travers called the film "electrifying," and The New York Times praised its "tales of professional commitment and artistic triumph . . . Matching new faces to voices we already know is a gift for music fans."

Released in theaters last June, 20 Feet From Stardom eventually grossed nearly $5 million – making it the top-grossing doc of last year – and Neville thinks he knows why. "Gil was always encouraging me to make sure it was a story people could relate to," the director says. "Most people aren't rock stars or CEOs. Most people identify with just being somebody in the middle and doing the best work they can without all the credit or money in the world. The music is a great way in, but music is a great Trojan horse to tell another story." Adds Love, "It's about holding onto your dreams. It could be a lawyer, a doctor or anybody. It just happened to be about background singers."

Love, who was initially wary of the project after feeling burned by other attempts to tell her story (to her surprise, she also had never met Friesen), says she was unexpectedly thrilled with the finished film. "I don't know what I expected, but I didn't expect it to be that great," she says. "I didn't think it would be that detailed. I'd never seen that footage of me and the Blossoms singing with Tom Jones. I said to Morgan, ‘How in the world did you find that?'"

While it's too early to say if the women will be performing at the 86th Academy Awards telecast on March 2nd, Love is hoping she and her fellow vocal legends will get a shot at singing one of the Oscar-nominated songs. "That could be the one thing we could do," she says. "U2 wrote a great song, so that would be unbelievable. But right now, we're just getting our clothes together and going on diets to get those dresses!" In another bit of propitious timing, the DVD of the film was released two days before the Oscar nominations.

As thrilling as the news has been for those who worked on 20 Feet From Stardom, it's also bittersweet in light of Friesen's death shortly before it premiered at Sundance last year. "Gil would have loved every minute of this," Neville says. Adds Love, "The only thing missing is Gil. But he did what he wanted to. The last thing he did before he left the earth was this project, and it doesn't get any better than that. He was with it every step of the way, and it was his last wish."