Harmonizing Surprises in â20 Feet From Stardomâ<br />

A still from the film 20 Feet from Stardom

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Darlene Love has some of the funniest stories about her near 60-year music career: from the Temptations’ Eddie Kendricks standing on her bed “buck naked” in a hotel room to her chasing her brother-in-law with a pistol after he wrecked the stereo in her prized Mercedes (the same Benz she used to drive through Beverly Hills to go work as a maid). These jaw-dropping tidbits and many more are featured in Love’s dishy memoir, My Name Is Love, which was rereleased in paperback last month—just as the much-buzzed-about documentary 20 Feet From Stardom hit theaters.

Directed by prolific documentarian Morgan Neville, the film is a compelling examination of the lives and times of Black background singers who shaped some of the greatest songs in pop music. Love is one of the main subjects, whose story is told in living color.

“The truth is the light and it will set you free,” Love says about revealing so much of herself in the book, and the movie. “People are actually searching for stuff, searching for things, and it’s amazing because there’s so much knowledge out there.”

According to Love, 20 Feet took shape a few years ago when she got a call from three old friends, including record producer Lou Adler and movie director Richard Donner (whom she worked with on the Lethal Weapon series). The third crucial “friend” turned out being Gil Friesen, the storied record company executive who served as the chairman of A&M Records for 13 years. 

Love, who’s worked with everyone from Elvis Presley and Dionne Warwick to Cher and Luther Vandross, is only one of six very distinct central figures that make up the core of 20 Feet From Stardom. The others include Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Tata Vega, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill.

“The most difficult thing about making this movie was having to cut stuff out, because there were so many great people, and I felt like I was only scratching the surface,” Neville (a self-proclaimed music junkie and Emmy Award winner) admits. The former journalist said he hopes 20 Feet will inspire more projects like it.

The doc premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January to rave reviews and was immediately snapped up by Radius, a division of The Weinstein Group. First opening in limited release (three select theaters), the 90-minute documentary has been expanding to theaters nationwide, weekly. 

“We saw the film at Sundance and knew immediately that our audience would love it,” Matt Kaszanek, says the film booker for New York City’s Film Society of Lincoln Center. “When it was announced that Radius had picked it up, we called them and said we wanted to play it.”

‘20 Feet From Stardom’ trailer

‘20 Feet From Stardom’ trailer

A groundswell of interest for the film was borne through social media. Cheryl “Pepsii” Riley first heard about the movie via Facebook. “Seeing posts from friends of mine, some who are actually in the film, made me rush to see it at Lincoln Center,” she says. The Brooklyn-bred singer (who experienced success in the 1980s with the R&B ballad “Thanks for My Child,” then as a background singer for Missy Elliott, Mary J. Blige, BeBe Winans and more) said she related to 20 Feet very well.

“So much of it was and is my story in many ways,” says Riley. “I saw my sisters, many who I have known a while and respect so very much, telling [our] story. Showing how it’s not all the glamour of just getting onstage. It is work, and definitely a sacrifice of sorts, to travel to and fro and selflessly help build the musical empires of so many.”

Within five weeks of release, 20 Feet has grossed close to $2 million, showing in 131 theaters nationwide. Columbia Records released the soundtrack from the film, featuring old and new recordings by the artists featured.

“I am not surprised the film has been a hit,” added Matt Kasanek. “Morgan is an extremely talented filmmaker, and this is a terrific story with amazingly talented women. I think people respond to the music and the underdog nature of the narrative.” 

Oscar buzz is already brewing for 20 Feet. Darlene Love, who says she’s getting calls for work she’s never gotten before, is “over the moon” about the prospect. Director Morgan Neville, on the other hand, isn’t being too overzealous. “I’m so superstitious, and as a documentary filmmaker my temperament is pessimist,” he says, “so let me just knock on wood and let everyone else just talk about it.” 

Karu F. Daniels’s work as an entertainment journalist has been featured in The Daily Beast, CNN.com, Vibe and Uptown, among others. Follow him on Twitter @TONTOKaru.