On one level, it was no surprise that veteran record company executive Gil Friesen was drawn to the theme of "20 Feet From Stardom," the film about backup singers that won the Oscar for documentary feature Sunday night.
Friesen, longtime president of A&M Records, was at a performance by Leonard Cohen in Las Vegas several years ago when he got the idea to explore the question of why support singers who, although tremendously talented, never became stars in their own right.
There was a parallel in his own life: Friesen himself was a different breed than high-profile record label heads like Clive Davis, Berry Gordy and Ahmet Ertegun. Sometimes referred to as "the ampersand in A&M," the label started in the early 1960s by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, Friesen had a considerably lower profile, preferring to keep attention focused on the musicians and filmmakers he was working with.
"He knew that a lot of these people were some of the best singers in the world," said Friesen's longtime friend and former employee, Jim Guerinot. "But there was something that doesn't get them all the way home."
Guerinot, former A&M senior vice president and general manager, noted that Friesen continued working on "20 Feet From Stardom," a project that became his swan song, virtually until the day he died on Dec. 13, 2012, at age 75.
"He was making a film from his hospital room while dying of leukemia," Guerinot said.
In fact, the film came together in part because of Friesen's illness. Guerinot said that many of the artists and music industry heavyweights who came to visit when he was hospitalized were enlisted by Friesen to help him move various facets of the project forward.
The Band's Robbie Robertson recently recalled Friesen floating the idea when it was in the early stages of development.
"I thought it was a great idea, because nobody had told this story before," Robertson said. Even though other documentaries in recent years such as "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," about The Funk Brothers, and "The Wrecking Crew" contained similar themes of overlooked studio musicians, Robertson noted a key distinction: "Nobody ever saw the Funk Brothers or the Wrecking Crew. These ['20 Feet From Stardom'] singers are up there onstage right behind the stars, touring the world with them."
Sunday's Oscar win for the film, directed by Morgan Neville, added a sweet climax to the project that highlights the careers of singers Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear and others who have sung behind Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, Bruce Springsteen and other rock, pop, R&B and jazz stars.
Friesen's widow, Janet, accompanied Love, Neville and producer Caitrin Rogers to the Dolby Theatre stage Sunday to collect the Oscar, during which Love burst into an a cappella snippet from the gospel song "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" when she stepped to the microphone.
"It was an incredibly bittersweet night," said Guerinot, who attended the award ceremony. "I'm so happy for all the people in the film and around the film and Morgan ... and so disappointed he couldn't have bounded up those steps and grabbed that little gold man."
In the film, headliners such as Springsteen, Sting and Bette Midler discuss the contributions of these singers and share thoughts on what separates them from those who reach the spotlight.
"It's a bit of a walk, from back by the drummer or over here," Springsteen notes in the film. "That walk to the front is ... complicated." Ultimately, the film suggests that it's an elusive combination of ego, narcissism, drive, talent and luck that separate the stars from the backup singers. "Singing background remains a somewhat unheralded position," Springsteen says.
Friesen produced two films with actor John Cusack in two of his earliest starring roles — "Better Off Dead" and "One Crazy Summer" —and also was executive producer of the 1985 hit "The Breakfast Club." His passion for filmmaking continued after he stepped down from A&M in 1990 following Alpert and Moss' decision to sell their respected indie label to the international corporate giant PolyGram.
Although Friesen didn't live to collect an Oscar as producer of "20 Feet From Stardom," he did learn shortly before he died that it had been chosen as the opening entry for the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
"The Weinstein Co. bought the rights to it that night," Guerinot said. "I remember one incredible moment at Sundance: I was standing next to Jerry [Moss] as the film finished and all the people in the audience were cheering, and he said, 'Man, this guy went out at the top of his game.'"
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