Trying to lure documentary-maker Morgan Neville to town last week for a live interview, I mentioned that his great film 20 Feet from Stardom had been revive-released and was playing a one-week stand in a beautiful movie palace in Santa Barbara called the Arlington. “I love the Arlington,” he said. “I know it very well. I grew up going to the Arlington and the State Theater before it became a video arcade and the Granada when it was just one screen; I remember waiting in a huge line to see Close Encounters there. I’d love to see my movie at the Arlington. You know I grew up in Santa Barbara,” he said. “My father owned a rare book store there.”
As it turns out, Morgan Neville, whose film about rock’s backup singers ought to take documentary awards everywhere, is the son of Maurice Neville, who owned Neville Books, one of the largest antiquities bookstores in the world. Morgan grew up working in the store, where he learned a lot about books, as well as movies and music, from his dad. On his own he saw the Clash at the Arlington and the Replacements at Casa de la Raza, among many other 1980s shows, but his father used to privately administer cultural lessons for the future music-doc filmmaker. “He used to take me on day trips to Los Angeles to look for books — most of the stores were around Hollywood Boulevard, and he would just turn me loose down there. Don’t know how wise that was when I was 15. But we also went to great movies, and he took me to see shows. We saw the Who on New Year’s Eve in 1975.”
Some of Papa Neville’s customers were rock-star quality, too — Hunter S. Thompson dropped in occasionally, and Warren Zevon, who collected detective fiction, was a friend. Morgan went away to Ojai for school, where he used to program Friday-night movies, though he ended up studying journalism at Vassar College and the University of Pennsylvania. After college, he started making music docs — a few made-for-television and more than a few episodes of A&E’s Biography series — about rock icons like Ray Charles or the songwriters Lieber and Stoller. Now he’s made a kind of masterpiece about being great behind the great.
“It wasn’t at all clear when we started what this movie was going to be,” said Neville. “Was it going to be girl groups or reggae singers? There were no books about it. We just decided to make a movie about backup singers. I did 50 hours of oral histories, traveling all over the place asking these legends what it was like, people telling me their life stories. By the end of that time, we knew what the film was going to be about.”
Neville admits that he couldn’t have done all of this on his own, though now he is left that way, sadly. “It was Gil Friesen, another Santa Barbaran, who helped me make all these connections,” he explained. The former chairperson of A&M Records took Neville under his wing and opened a mighty Rolodex, which got Neville introductions to figures and icons like Bruce Springsteen, Sting, and Stevie Wonder, all of whom dot the film with surprisingly probing commentaries and complement the real stars, like Merry Clayton, Táta Vega, and the Rolling Stones’ remarkable backup singer Lisa Fischer. Sadly, though Friesen got to see the finished product, he died from complications of a marrow transplant just before the film got its wide release. “Of course, I’m sad about that,” said Neville. “But much sadder for his wife and family.”
“While I was making the movie, I think I worried at one point that this was going to be a very depressing film,” laughed Neville, speaking about the doc’s unsubtle subtext of life behind the rich and famous. (Many of the singers profiled tried and failed at solo careers.) “And then I remembered, when people sing rock-and-roll songs, they’re always the back-up singers,” he said. The film itself takes an artistic but rounded look at the topic and even delivers philosophical commentary on the nature of fame.
“At one point in the interviews — and this didn’t make it into the film — somebody in the Waters family [singers featured in the doc] told me, ‘People come along and have a hit song, and maybe they’re good for three years and then they’re gone. We’ve been doing this for 50 years, and we’ve always had work. If what you want to do is sing, then this is a great job.’”
Neville’s job continues, even as he rests on his well-earned laurels. “I started making documentaries, and I hope I always make docs. I have a feature film, but right now I’m working on something about Yo-Yo Ma,” he explained. Documenting the famed cellist’s Silk Road tour is taking Neville all over the world, a fact that he doesn’t seem to mind much. This week, Neville slows his busy schedule to answer questions following a screening of 20 Feet. It’s a benefit for the Ojai Film Festival that will find Neville and singer Merry Clayton back on his home turf, and while he’s intrigued by the idea of seeing some of his high school teachers and attempting to get them onstage, he’s also keen on making a return trip. “I’d still love to see my movie at the Arlington,” he said.
The Ojai Film Society celebrates its 25th anniversary with a screening of 20 Feet from Stardom at the Libbey Bowl (210 S. Signal St., Ojai) on Saturday, September 28, at 5 p.m. Director Morgan Neville and singer Merry Clayton will appear following the film. Call (805) 646-8946 or visit ojaifilmsociety.org for tickets and info.