From Locust Walk to the red carpet
Penn alum Morgan Neville's path to an Academy Award started with journalism
March 5, 2014, 9:14 pm · Updated March 6, 2014, 12:31 am·
He could only describe it as an “out-of-body experience.”
In front of hundreds of the nation’s most famous faces and 43.7 million TV viewers, 1989 College graduate Morgan Neville walked onto the stage of the 86th Academy Awards on Sunday to receive the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
Neville was the director and co-producer of the winning documentary, “20 Feet from Stardom.” Released nationwide last June, the film shares the untold stories and struggles of backup singers who sang behind the pop music industry’s biggest stars.
“I was thrilled ... but in a strange way I felt oddly solemn,” Neville said. “I didn’t know how it would be to get on stage in front of a billion people, but it was actually really great.”
It was Neville’s first time at the Oscars, but he had been nominated for three Grammys for past documentaries and won an Emmy for a television special he produced in 2004 on country music star Hank Williams.
Before he started creating award-winning documentaries, however, Neville studied American history at Penn.
“I was a kid from California who went to Philadelphia and fell in love with the city and fell in love with the school and immersed myself in it,” he said. “My great loves were really journalism, film and music.”
During his years at Penn, Neville was a columnist for The Daily Pennsylvanian, a member of the St. Elmo Fraternity and played in a band called “Diphthong.” He described it as a “geeky band” whose title was comprised of an obscure linguistic term - a diphthong is a single sound created by two adjacent vowels.
After graduating, Neville worked as a journalist for four years. He expanded his career when he began working on his first documentary, which focused on the history of Los Angeles and was released in 1995.
“I love journalism, but I really love filmmaking,” Neville said. “Within two weeks of starting my first documentary, I remember calling my parents and telling them, ‘This is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.’”
Over the past two decades, Neville directed and produced 25 documentaries on music, language, art and Hollywood.
“[Making documentaries] is 3-D journalism,” Neville said. “It’s everything that I like about journalism but held on a grand scale with images and music. It allows you to be a storyteller, which is what I ultimately love.”
In 1999, Neville founded his own documentary production company, Tremolo Productions. Along with 1983 College graduate Robert Gordon, Neville co-directed a film in 2007 on soul music and the civil rights movement in Memphis. The documentary, “Respect Yourself: The Stax Records Story,” was nominated for a Grammy.
Despite his past success, Neville’s greatest claim to fame is the documentary that earned him an Oscar this week. In the two years that he spent working on “20 Feet from Stardom,” he didn’t realize how popular it would be.
“You just try to make the film that you want to see and the film that speaks to you the most, and you hope the audience likes it too,” Neville said. “But from the moment we premiered this film, it just exploded.”
“20 Feet from Stardom” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013, and it received a 99 percent aggregate approval rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes.
Neville said that he first got involved with the film when a producer approached him asking if he’d be interested in investigating the world of backup singers.
“It was a corner of the music industry that I didn’t know anything about. And once I started thinking about it, it revealed itself to be a secret history of pop music,” he said. “It was a whole new way of listening to music we’ve all heard before.”
As he learned about the lives of the singers featured in the film, the documentary became a very personal experience for Neville.
“The currency of documentaries is intimacy, and it’s all based on relationships and trust,” he said. “I have ongoing relationships with everyone in the film. ... It becomes part of your life and part of who you are.”
Although Neville has formed many valuable relationships and enjoyed incredible success since leaving Penn, he hasn’t forgotten about the value of the years he spent at the University.
“When I think about [my experience at Penn], I just think about the people and how much we all got from each other,” he said. “It was just a really special time.”