Stories about singers and songwriters have always interested documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville. In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, he says: “I love telling the story behind the song, but revealing something that will make you hear that song differently.”
Neville’s documentaries heavily emphasize the lives and legendary performances of musicians. He continues that trend with 20 Feet from Stardom, the latest Filmworks screening set for Oct. 11 at the historic Tower Theatre. The movie tells the story of the unsung heroes of pop music — female backup singers — and their successes, failures, and attempts to reach to the top. They strive while supporting acts such as Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, and more.
His research for 20 Feet from Stardom showcases the lengths to which Neville will go for authenticity and credibility in his documentaries.
“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,” Neville says in an interview with the Santa Barbara Independent newspaper. “By the end of that time, we knew what the film was going to be about.”
Neville’s passion for uncovering the compelling and hidden stories surrounding an artist’s life can be seen throughout his work. One of his most recent films includes the 2008 feature Johnny Cash’s America, a documentary detailing the life of the legendary country singer. He interviews a multitude of artists — including John Cougar Mellencamp, Tim Robbins, and even Snoop Dogg — to explore the wide impact that Cash’s life and career had on American popular music.
“These people all have strong feelings about [Cash],” Neville says in an interview with the online magazine Country Universe. “He reverberated through all these different strata of culture. They all feel some kind of a personal connection to him, and that was the thing we were looking for.”
Neville not only has established a repertoire in music films, but also with documentaries steeped in historical and social commentary. One of his first films, 1995’s Shotgun Freeway: Drive Through Lost L.A., tackles the social history of Los Angeles, with commentators focusing on different aspects of the city, from famous attributes such as Hollywood and Beverly Hills, to other interesting features such as the noir scene.
After finishing 20 Feet from Stardom, Neville began work on another music documentary that follows world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble, a project that tries to use music as a conduit for multicultural collaboration and growth.
“I’m getting into the ideas behind The Silk Road Ensemble,” Neville says in an interview with the Boston Globe. “Exploring the ideas of how music can build bridges where politics can’t.”
Colby Tibbet studies journalism at Fresno City College. He is the Filmworks media relations and communication intern.