Former backup singers Tata Vega and Merry Clayton took center stage Monday night at an intimate soiree to celebrate the success of Morgan Neville’s Oscar-nominated music documentary 20 Feet From Stardom.
At Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill Jazz in Los Angeles, Neville gave a heartfelt speech about the journey of making the documentary, which tells the untold story of the backup singers behind some of the greatest musical acts of the 21st century. In a touching moment before the live music began, Neville thanked the late Gil Friesen, who had the original idea for the documentary and served as producer for the film before passing away in December of 2012.
Immediately following the short speech, Neville introduced Vega, who kicked off the night with a performance of Sam & Dave’s “Hold On (I’m Coming)” that was so energetic, the singer herself was left slightly out of breath.
Vega addressed the audience with a quip about being out of shape before pouring her heart into a beautiful rendition of “My Funny Valentine” and then capping off her set with a powerful rendition of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”
Clayton followed with a three-song set of her own, kicking things off with a flirty rendition of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”
“One thing I know is I came to sang!” Clayton said between songs. “I didn’t come to sing — I came to sang!”
Clayton capped her set with a performance of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” followed by a rendition of The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” a song she originally performed and recorded with Stones frontman Mick Jagger.
20 Feet From Stardom‘s director was all smiles after the event when EW caught up with him and asked how things have been since discovering the film was officially in the running to win Best Documentary at this year’s Academy Awards.
“It’s been incredible!” Neville said of the experience. “As the film’s marched on and found an audience, the women in our film have just had all these new opportunities. It’s like a real-life Cinderella story for these women who’ve had missed opportunities, and bad luck, and bad management in the past, and the film has kind of gone on to open new doors for them.”
The documentary’s success may be opening new doors for singers like Vega and Clayton, but the one question on everyone’s mind still seems to be whether there’s a possibility of a 20 Feet From Stardom tour. However much Neville may want a tour to happen, the director says your guess is pretty much as good as his.
“I’m a filmmaker, not a concert promoter, but I would love nothing more than for these people to go on tour. I know the first time I saw them all perform together at Sundance a year ago, I thought, ‘Put this on the road now — this is so ready,’” Neville recalled. “These women are primed to go, just put it on a stage and people will love it!”