Those are just a few of the countless indelible musical moments in the Motown Records catalog that helped artists like Martha & the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, and the Supremes become household names. But an anonymous crew of virtuoso Detroit jazz- and blues-schooled players created and played the Motown sound heard in households across the world. Paul Justman's new film documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown aims to finally shine the spotlight on the Funk Brothers, the collective of musicians who tirelessly worked in the basement studio called "the Snake Pit," giving life to timeless hook after timeless hook. Drummer/producer Steve Jordan sets the tone early in the film with this comment: "Not taking anything away from the great artists and vocalists on Motown, but they could have had Deputy Dawg sing on these songs and they would have been hits, because the tracks are so incredible."
Overstatement, perhaps, but watching Standing in the Shadows of Motown and listening to the stories told by Funk Brothers such as percussionist Jack Ashford, drummer Uriel Jones and guitarist Eddie Willis, you can't fault Jordan for wanting to give these unsung heroes their long-overdue props.
The film itself is a solid documentary, working best when functioning as oral history, letting principals like bassist Bob Babbitt tell long-repressed stories about the close-knit family of the Funk Brothers and the atmosphere in the studio. The musicians' friendship and camaraderie is the heart of the film, as they persevere through numerous hardships: the drug overdose of drummer Benny Benjamin; the fragile personality of tortured genius and bassist supreme James Jamerson; Motown sending spies to other studios to prevent their musicians from supplementing their income with moonlighting gigs; and ultimately and most crushing, Motown's move from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972 -- with no advance notice to its employees.
That move closed the door on any chance the Funk Brothers would receive wider recognition for their work, as they returned to playing club gigs. Motown's departure weighed heavily on many of its musicians, years after the company had left Detroit. In the film, Allen Slutsky (whose biography of James Jamerson inspired the film) remembers having lunch in the '80s with Funk Brother Ted White, when "My Girl" came over the restaurant's sound system.
"(White) turns to the waiter and goes, 'Hey! You hear that? That's ...' and then he stops and looks down at the menu and goes, 'I think I'll have the barbecued chicken,'" Slutsky remembers. When Slutsky asked White why he didn't tell the waiter that he played the classic guitar riff, White said, "He'd think I was an old fool. He'd never believe me."
That feeling of palpable loss brings heightened emotional impact to the performance sequences in the film, as the surviving Funk Brothers reunite on stage for the first time in decades for sold-out shows in Detroit. They back a number of contemporary performers, including Joan Osborne, Gerald Levert, Meshell Ndegeocello, Bootsy Collins, Ben Harper and Chaka Khan, who all turn in heartfelt and riveting performances of Motown classics, backed by letter-perfect backing from the band. No matter how many times you've heard the song before, it's an emotional moment to watch Johnny Griffith's aged hands play his keyboard intro to Marvin Gaye's "I Heard it Through the Grapevine." (That scene takes on added poignancy now, as Griffith died on Nov. 17, three days after playing the Apollo Theater with his bandmates for the film's premiere.)
The film's primary flaw is its occasional use of young actors for scenes recreating some of the Funk Brothers' anecdotes. This technique smacks of the crude re-enactments on television crime shows, and diminishes the impact of the narrative by using the Funk Brothers' recollections as voice-overs.
That unfortunate storytelling device aside, Standing in the Shadows of Motown is required viewing for any fan of American music and unsung heroes. It's also hard not to watch Standing in the Shadows of Motown and wish for a similar documentary about New Orleans' incredible cast of session musicians. Fats Domino's bandmembers through the years merit a documentary of their own, not to mention R&B and jazz stalwarts like bassist Irving Charles, drummer Earl Palmer and saxophonist Earl Turbinton. And with so many of New Orleans' great musicians like Lee Allen and Alvin "Red" Tyler already gone, time is slipping away to help bring our own collection of Funk Brothers out of the shadows. Any Louisiana filmmakers -- Stevenson Palfi or Jerry Brock, perhaps -- out there looking for their next project?
- Karen Sas
- Funk Brothers Jack Ashford, Pistol Allen, Joe Hunter and Eddie Willis with Joan Osborne in Standing in the Shadows of Motown.