Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, directed by Paul Justman (Artisan)
For over a decade, the Funk Brothers, a team of unsung studio musicians, provided the heartbeat to the Motown Sound. This new documentary is a love song, dedicated just to them. Early on, we’re told that from 1959-71, the Funk Brothers played on more #1 hits than Elvis, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles combined. The Brothers provided the unforgettable grooves for the Supremes’ “Stop! In The Name Of Love”, Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, the Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain”, Martha & the Vandellas’ “Dancing In The Street”, and dozens of other AM radio classics. And yet, then as now, only the most obsessive fans have known their names.
Standing In The Shadows aims to make sure we never take the Funk Brothers for granted again. That they were explains the only consistently disappointing element of this otherwise exemplary film: We never get more than a fleeting glimpse of the Funk Brothers performing in their prime. Apparently, whether the band was playing in cramped and cable-swamped studio “A” (known to musicians as “the Snake Pit”) or onstage during one of Motown’s celebrated revues, it only rarely occurred to anyone to get the men on film. The lack of vintage footage in the documentary (even the stills begin to recycle by movie’s end) is especially regrettable since several key members of the ensemble have died and, therefore, are mostly absent here even as latter-day interview subjects.
Notable among the missing are the team’s original drummer Benny “Papa Zita” Benjamin; keyboardist and de facto bandleader Earl Van Dyke; guitarist Robert White (that’s his indelible, starry-eyed lick on “My Girl”); and bassist James Jamerson, whose melodic and inventive one-finger lines redefined his instrument and, perhaps more than any element in the mix, made the Motown Sound so instantly identifiable.
Each of these departed musicians is still vividly present in the film, though — thanks to the reminiscences of the surviving Funk Brothers. Some of their stories are so hilarious and poignant that they render unnecessary the film’s handful of black-and-white re-creations. That’s especially true when the storyteller is the charismatic Jack Ashford, Motown’s main man on the tambourine. Indeed, one of the film’s many revelations is how significant that seemingly trivial instrument was to “the Sound of Young America.”
Of course, the Funk Brothers didn’t create that sound alone. It’s pure foolishness to pretend that just anybody — even, as one talking head quips, “Deputy Dog” — could’ve cut hits to the Brothers’ grooves. Obviously, Motown’s singers, arrangers and producer/songwriters also made crucial contributions. At the same time, there’s no denying that the Funk Brothers were one hell of a backing crew.
Still are, too, as they prove in the film’s most rousing sequences — clips from a concert that features the remaining Funk Brothers performing with singers Gerald Levert, Joan Osborne, Meshell Ndegeocello, Ben Harper, Chaka Khan, Montell Jordan, and Bootsy Collins. Levert and Osborne are particularly impressive, the former proving himself a first-rate latter-day soul singer on a house-wrecking version of “Shotgun”, the latter amazing with her dramatic and lushly orchestrated reading of “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted”.
Why this cast of guest stars? Following a special screening of the film in Kansas City, Missouri, producer Allan Slutsky explained that virtually everyone you might want to be involved was asked to participate; the singers above are simply the ones who were willing to show up. So, the neglect of the Funk Brothers continues.
At least now we have Slutsky and director Paul Justman’s film to shine a light into the shadows. Their movie captures the group members’ individual personalities. (At one point, seventy-something pianist Joe Hunter dances his way into a splits, on the way down becoming one of the very few people ever to upstage Bootsy Collins.) But most of all, it honors the Funk Brothers’ hard work and their incomparable, joyous music.