Interview: '20 Feet from Stardom' star Merry Clayton


There's really no other film like the stunning new music documentary, "20 Feet from Stardom," director Morgan Neville's chronicle of the most notable backup singers in music history, and the triumphs and heartaches that met the unsung heroes as they navigated their way through the business, trying to forge careers of their own.

Expanding into more theaters Friday, the Special Jury Prize-winner in the documentary feature category at this year's Sundance Film Festival concentrates on classic backup singers Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Tata Vega, Claudia Lennear and Lisa Fischer. The film also features Judith Hill, a contestant on this season's TV reality competition "The Voice," following various backup singer gigs including a spot on the Michael Jackson's ill-fated "This is It" tour in 2009.

In addition to telling the stories of the singers, Neville scored interviews for the film with the likes of Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder and Sting. It wasn't an easy task securing time with the superstars, Neville admitted, but once the talent found out what sorts of stories the director wanted from them, it provided for some very unique conversations.

"I've been doing music documentaries for a long time, so it took a lot of Rolodex work to get it done and getting in the door," Neville, accompanied by Clayton, told me in a recent interview during the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival in April. "But once we got in, we found out how much they loved talking about the subject because they've never talked about backup singers before to anybody. They, more than anybody know, how backup singers make them sound good. So, in a way, by talking about them was a way of giving back."

While Clayton, 64, rose to prominence with her haunting vocals that accompanied Mick Jagger on the Rolling Stones classic "Gimme Shelter," she considered herself long blessed before making that specific contribution to music history. In fact, she knew late legendary singer-songwriter Billy Preston growing up, and because of Preston, Clayton got her first big break as a backup singer for the late, great Ray Charles.

"We were always known as 'Billy and Baby Sister.' Where ever Billy was, I was. So for him to call me about Ray, it only made sense because I was always around him," Clayton recalled for me. "I loved Ray Charles because all of my life. Growing up he was the only artist my father allowed to go and see. So after seeing him, I always knew in my heart that I could do that. I could sing what those girls could sing. I would stand and watch them be quiet and listen. It was a bout the only time in my life I would stay quiet. I knew I could do it because the harmonies he used were the same harmonies we used in our church choir."

See the trailer for "20 Feet from Stardom" below.

Of course, "Gimme Shelter" was a monumental occasion in Clayton's life and career, and she said reminders of the song -- the opening track of the Stones' 1969 album "Let it Bleed" -- are all bound, even to this day.

After the song was released, Clayton said, hearing the song was like an out-of-body experience.

"There was a time where I would listen to it and really couldn't believe it was me," Clayton recalled. "When Morgan invited me into the studio to interview me, he played that song without telling me first, just to get my reaction on camera. He scaled it down to just the vocal without the music, and I went, 'Oh, my God, I was singing for the blood, wasn't I? That was really straight from the throne of heaven.' I can't believe what came out of me when I sang it."

Neville pulled the same surprise on Jagger for the film, too, and the look on the iconic singer's face when he hears Clayton for the first time is priceless.

"You can still see Mick's enthusiasm for it. There's still no better performance in history that I know of than in that song," Neville said.

Ironically, Fischer has been performing the song on live dates with the Stones since 1989, but Clayton holds no ill will against her fellow back-up singer for performing "Gimme Shelter" now -- in fact she embraces her.

"We call ourselves the sisterhood, and Lisa is part of the sisterhood. I absolutely love and adore Lisa," Clayton enthused. "The first time that we met was when the film debuted at Sundance, and we just fell into each other's arms and hugged each other. I said, 'Hey, I'm so thrilled to meet you,' and she said, 'I'm thrilled to meet you and my God, am I doing OK? Am I doing the song OK?' We just loved being around each other the whole festival. With all the singers -- Lisa, Darlene, Tata and Judith -- it was like a love fest at Sundance."

Bring Me The News film critic Tim Lammers is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he also reviews films on “KARE 11 News at 11.” As a feature writer, Tim has interviewed well over 1,000 major actors and filmmakers throughout his career and his work is syndicated nationwide.

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