Standing in the Shadows of Motown

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Paul Justman
Running time: 108 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
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Musicians are always getting screwed. If it isn’t their record label cheating them out of royalties, the club owner trying to hang onto their wages, or their fans pirating all their albums via file-trading, then it’s the damn singers taking credit for everything. Everybody knows, say, James Brown, but how many people can name the drummer who came up with that funky backbeat for which the Godfather of Soul is known? (Answer: Clyde Stubblefield.)

True, many singers are self-contained creative and charismatic stars, and you could put any bunch of faceless session musicians behind them and still wind up in the same place. (Anyone heard Norah Jones’ second album?) But that’s not always the case: Take Detroit’s Motown label, from its most fertile period in the ’60s and ’70s, when it managed to crank out more No. 1 singles than The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Elvis combined.

The Supremes, The Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson Five, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye.. . . Motown’s hit-makers were singers one and all. But stop for a moment — I mean, really stop — and let the sounds of The Temptations’ “My Girl” drift through your head. Guaranteed the first thing you’ll be hearing is that monumentally simple six-note guitar arpeggio that sucks you in. Or try the same with “Heard it Through the Grapevine.” Those keyboard chords set the mood up just right for the vocals to drop in mid-phrase. Or just try to hum “Where did our Love Go?” without hearing that crisp, swinging snare drum driving it along on the backbeat.

Point being that not just any session musician could have laid down these hooks so tightly, so memorably, so perfectly. But who were these masters of funkified pop who defined the sound of a generation? You won’t find them in the liner notes; these musicians were never even credited on any of the albums they worked on (except one), despite the fact that the same crew played on hit after hit.

Bringing them long overdue recognition is the documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” a film by boomer director Paul Justman, who’s known for his journeyman MTV video work (Diana Ross to The Cars) and documentaries (James Brown to Deep Purple!). Justman reunites the surviving members of the Funk Brothers — as Motown’s house band called themselves — and mixes reminiscing and ruminating with a revival concert that features younger guest vocalists.

There have been a lot of people trying to remake “Buena Vista Social Club” lately, but despite the superficial similarities — long-lost musicians getting a final bow in the spotlight — the story here is worth telling. There’s a wealth of material on how the songs came together, how they were recorded, how the musicians clicked with each other, where their influences came from (jazz joints and strip clubs) and how they were unceremoniously dropped when label honcho Barry Gordy moved Motown out to Los Angeles.

It’s shocking to hear that the musicians weren’t even told of this development; they just turned up at Motown’s Studio A one morning and found it locked, with a “closed forever” note on the door. Worse indignities follow: Bassist James Jamerson, who literally trailblazed a whole new playing style, had to buy a scalped ticket for Motown’s nationally televised 25th anniversary concert. He died three months later, poor and anonymous. Keyboardist Joe Hunter is introduced at his current job — playing piano in a hotel lobby.

It goes without saying that ol’ Joe looks a helluva lot happier when the filmmakers put him on a stage with his old bandmates, burning through classics like “Reach Out, I’ll Be There.” Watching the Funk Brothers reunion, a few things are perfectly clear: 1) that age hasn’t dimmed these guys in the least — Richard “Pistol” Allen could still make a drum machine weep tears of blood; 2) these guys enjoy playing together, and that is no small part in what makes their sound magic; and 3) guest singers, such as Ben Harper, ain’t got nothin’ on the original. Harper has a good, solid voice, but the man’s got about as much funk as a table leg.

Singer Meshell N’Degeocello, unsurprisingly, takes the PC tack by asking bassist Bob Babbit — one of two white members of the group — whether he ever felt any racial tension (though it’s obvious to anyone watching these guys play that musical compatibility made any other issue irrelevant). Babbit literally breaks down and can’t continue the interview when he recalls his fellow Funk Brothers hustling him out of the chaos of the Detroit riots of 1968, after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

There is some irony, though, in noting how the filmmakers and the vast majority of the audience at the Funk Brothers reunion are white, and that the best vocal performance on display here is by Joan Osborne, herself a white chick. The process in which black pop music is adopted a generation later by white audiences would be a good subject for a documentary — as would black rejection of African-American music after it’s been “tainted” by white acceptance — but don’t expect to find that here. “Motown” is a love letter, pure and simple, to some of the most fantastically uplifting and expertly crafted pop ever; pop-music otaku will have a feast. Personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that the lowly tambourine — slammed out by Jack Ashford — was the secret ingredient to the Motown sound. Don’t buy that? See the film, then.

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