A world beyond the spotlight

Caroling with the stars to celebrate 20 Feet From Stardom.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Paul Shaffer accompanying Darlene Love in
Paul Shaffer accompanying Darlene Love in "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" as the holiday revelers join in. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Invited for caroling and cocktails by David Letterman's Late Show musical director Paul Shaffer and DOC NYC's Thom Powers, organised by Peggy Siegal, illustrious guests celebrated Morgan Neville's Oscar short listed documentary 20 Feet From Stardom with three of its stars - Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill.

At the Rum House in the Edison Hotel, on a Times Square already in the process of being prepared for New Year's Eve, I felt as though I entered into a scene from Woody Allen's Hannah And Her Sisters. I don't know which - an imaginary one with Glenn Close, Steve Buscemi, Jo Andres, Gretchen Mol, Robert Wuhl, and Richard Kind, directed by Paul Haggis. The evening was all about the joy of performance.

The film documents the careers of backup singers for the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Bette Middler and Sting with recent interviews. It also features archival footage with David Bowie, Luther Vandross, Ray Charles and Phil Spector.

Richard Kind caroling with Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill.
Richard Kind caroling with Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer and Judith Hill. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Award-winning documentary directors Barbara Kopple and Heidi Ewing joined in as the three great singers led us vocally dashing through the snow into not so silent nights, and winter wonderlands. RADiUS-TWC co-presidents Tom Quinn and Jason Janego introduced the evening.

I asked director Morgan Neville about the initial spark that started the project and he gave a large share of the credit to music industry executive Gil Friesen, a producer of the film who died last year, right before it premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival. "I knew nothing about the subject," he told me, and explained that this was a good starting point, because most people know nothing about the influential work backup singers do. "Then I met these women…" and the interviews began.

Heidi Ewing with DOC NYC's Thom Powers.
Heidi Ewing with DOC NYC's Thom Powers. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Steve Buscemi, singing merrily with the crowd, told me how much he loved the movie. Barbara Kopple, who was there with her son Nick, toasted with me to a good year, past and future.

In Neville's introduction right before the serious caroling began, he said: "Meeting these women I started to see parts of myself in their story. There's a sense of pride in their craft, a sense of the work being its own essential worth and having done documentaries for 20 years, you know a lot about that" "Any good things that come your way, you deserve it all!" he said to Love, Fischer and Hill.

20 Feet From Stardom director Morgan Neville with RADiUS-TWC's Tom Quinn.
20 Feet From Stardom director Morgan Neville with RADiUS-TWC's Tom Quinn. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Equipped with a holiday songbook that gave us the lyrics for Winter Wonderland, Jingle Bells and O Holy Night, the enthusiastic congregation joined in with the three marvelous voices. Silent Night, which was not included in the songbook, was rescued by Glenn Close, who, deep into the rendition, jumped right in to sing with Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, and Judith Hill, as the only one of the four who remembered all of the lyrics. Peter Cincotti took over the piano for a while, before a late arriving Paul Shaffer sleighed over from the taping of the Letterman show, ending the evening on a high note.

I spoke with Thom Powers and his wife Raphaela Neihausen, the executive director of DOC NYC, about their successful 2013 edition of the festival that wrapped up recently, and chatted with Heidi Ewing, who cheerfully joined the caroling in a fetching red fedora.

Steve Buscemi, Peter Cincotti, Glenn Close, Paul Shaffer, Robert Wuhl, with Showbiz 411's Roger Friedman greeting Judith Hill and Darlene Love at the celebration for 20 Feet From Stardom.
Steve Buscemi, Peter Cincotti, Glenn Close, Paul Shaffer, Robert Wuhl, with Showbiz 411's Roger Friedman greeting Judith Hill and Darlene Love at the celebration for 20 Feet From Stardom. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Showbiz 411's Roger Friedman, who was also at last week's August: Osage County luncheon honoring producer Jean Doumanian at Le Cirque, was happy to get a name to a quote he used in his "'August: Osage County' Actor Sam Shepard Plays it Cool (and Fun) at Lunchtime Q&A" article. I was the "woman at lunch" who toasted with Sam Shepard and told Chris Cooper that “all the maternal feelings in the movie are expressed by your character.” The other formidable cast members at the lunch were Margo Martindale, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson and Abigail Breslin who participated in a Q&A moderated by New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel.

"Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight." On this evening, the stars of 20 Feet From Stardom were the ones who shone the brightest.

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