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Sundance 2013: 'Twenty Feet From Stardom' Shines Spotlight on Background Singers

The documentary about the lives of supporting singers -- some of whom appeared on the Eccles Theatre stage for a few songs -- received a standing ovation.

Twenty Feet From Stardom
"Twenty Feet From Stardom"

PARK CITY — In director Morgan Neville's Twenty Feet From Stardom, mostly overlooked background singers like Merry Clayton, Darlene LoveLisa Fischer, Judith Hill and Tata Vega are given a chance to shine. And a few of them did it again on stage at the Eccles Theatre during the post-screening Q&A on the opening night of the Sundance Film Festival.

The documentary centers on the performers' struggles and triumphs as professional musicians who are required to cede the limelight to stars. And several of those bold-faced names -- such as Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and Sting -- share their warm recollections of and admiration for these performers.

"Films like this are not easy to make -- it took a lot of Rolodex work to get this film done," Neville said during the Q&A. "It was favors top to bottom -- getting the music cleared and all that stuff. And we did it."

Several of the background singers featured in the film performed on some of the most iconic songs recorded during the 1960s and 1970s, including Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" and the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter." In one particularly moving scene, Clayton, 63, sits in the studio where the famed Stones song was cut and listens to the recording -- with her powerful background vocals taking center stage.

There was spontaneous applause from the audience during the "Gimme Shelter" segment and a source says multiple distributors have shown interest in acquiring the film. Twenty Feet From Stardom is screening in Sundance's U.S. Documentary Competition section.

During the Q&A, Neville pleaded with the singers who joined him onstage -- Clayton, Hill and Vega -- to sing for the crowd, which had given the documentary a standing ovation. They each demurred at first but ultimately relented and sang gospel songs for the audience.

Clayton stole the show during the Q&A, drawing a chorus of laughs when she admonished a few people for leaving the theater early. "Why ya'll leaving? Why ya'll leaving?" she asked the sheepish festival-goers.

"I was truly inspired to be in the company of these amazing women. Just to be a part of this has given me so much hope and encouraged me for my future," said Hill, in her late twenties, who performed with Michael Jackson and is now pursuing a solo career.

Gil Friesen and Caitrin Rogers produced Twenty Feet From Stardom. It next screens Jan. 18 at the Temple Theatre.

Josh Braun of Submarine Entertainment is representing the filmmakers. 

Email: Daniel.Miller@THR.com

Twitter: @DanielNMiller