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Sundance 2013: 'Twenty Feet from Stardom' wows crowd, nears sale

January 18, 2013|By Steve Zeitchik and Julie Makinen | Park City, Utah
  • Jo Lawry, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer in "Twenty Feet From Stardom."
Jo Lawry, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer in "Twenty Feet From Stardom." (Sundance Film Festival )

The Sundance Film Festival is poised to see its first acquisition, with Weinstein Co.'s VOD label Radius hammering out final details on a deal to buy the backup-singer documentary "Twenty Feet From Stardom," according to a person familiar with the negotiations who was not authorized to talk about them publicly.

Directed by Morgan Neville, the film centers on the musically talented but, well, unsung world of backup vocalists, spotlighting the voices that helped make songs such as "Gimme Shelter" enduring hits. "Stardom" premiered Thursday to a warm reception in Park City as one of a quartet of opening-night films.

The film puts a spotlight on vocalists including Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Darlene Love and Judith Hill. It features interviews with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sting, Sheryl Crow and Stevie Wonder. The movie traces how black women broke into background singing in the 1960s, and chronicles some of their efforts -- largely unsuccessful -- to build solo careers.

A Radius spokeswoman did not immediately reply to a request for comment. [Update, 3:37 pm: The company confirms the deal and says it plans a late summer release with a significant theatrical component.]

SUNDANCE: Full coverage

Radius had one of the hits of last year's festival when the Kirsten Dunst marital comedy "Bachelorette" went on to gross more than $7 million on VOD, according to the distributor. But a documentary like "Stardom" is a bit of a departure for a company specializing in VOD; the form is generally thought to be more effective with star-driven features. But the big-name artists who are interviewed in the film may draw viewers.

After Thursday night's screening, three of the vocalists featured in the film -- Clayton, Vega and Hill -- came on stage and even belted out some songs.

On stage, Neville said: “I didn’t know anything about who these people were… I quickly realized it was a family – everyone knows each other.”

He added that in today's world of "American Idol" and other routes to seemingly instant fame, something artistic was being lost. “So much of our culture is about ‘me’ and ‘I,’” he said. Background singing “is about disappearing into a greater whole ... this should be celebrated everyday.”

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