The soul behind the sound
The 1960s were revolutionary for numerous reasons. Avoiding all the geo-political and interpersonal theories for a moment, one of the most monumental achievements to come out of this decade of turmoil and triumph was the music. Not just any kind of music, mind you, but sounds and songs that would ever change the course of aural history forever. On the west coast, Brian Wilson spent a decade (and most of his sanity) constructing intricate, gorgeous soundscapes, hoping to follow in the footsteps of idol Phil Specter in developing "little symphonies for the kiddies." In Britain, four mop-topped dissidents absorbed influences from every facet of the musical spectrum and fashioned it into a revolutionary pop sound so innovative and unique that, forty plus years later, scholars and fans are still trying to decipher it. And in the motor city of Detroit, an ex-auto worker and a group of his friends determined to take soul and R&B and transform it from the racially segregated "race" music label of late '50s radio into something universally embraced by both black and white. Creating a unique combination of funk and freshness, the new sound reflected the changing times, personifying a coming together of all society into one big freedom loving block party. Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a 2002 documentary recently released on DVD, doesn't focus on urban uprisings or the chronological accomplishments of Hitsville U.S.A. Instead, it concentrates on the Funk Brothers, Motown's house band and unheralded back up group. It's not surprising to learn that these talented musicians have played on more number one hits than any other group in the history of music. What is shocking is the lack of respect they've received. Until now.
Facts of the Case
Composed of Jack "Black Jack" Ashford, Bob Babbitt, Joe Hunter, Uriel Jones, Joe Messina, Eddie Willis, Richard "Pistol" Allen, William "Papa Zita" Benjamin, Eddie "Bongo" Brown, Johnny Griffith, James Jamerson, Earl Van Dyke, and Robert White, The Funk Brothers were Motown's in-house studio band, playing on almost every song the groundbreaking Detroit record company ever released. From sessions with the Temptations and the Supremes to touring with Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, their story is one of personal triumphs, dogged determination, hard work, wild times, under appreciation, and tragic loss. Brought back together after decades by author Allan Slutsky for his book Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the documentary inspired by the non-fiction bestseller focuses on again reuniting the living Funk Brothers and having them reminisce about the golden age of soul music in Detroit. It concentrates on biographical and anecdotal material about all the musicians. It also presents selected songs from a special concert of Motown classics featuring guest voice artists like Joan Osbourne, Gerald Levert, and Bootsy Collins.
There have been many unheralded heroes in the history of the entertainment business. Take Marnie Nixon for example, a singer gifted with one of the most beautiful and profound voices in the realm of movie musicals. Unfortunately, Ms. Nixon spent the majority of her time and talent dubbing the supposed professional superstar voices of Audrey Hepburn (in My Fair Lady), Natalie Wood (West Side Story), and Deborah Kerr (The King and I). Or take the Brill Building. As a name, it becomes just another "where" in the long list of unknowns. But if you start mentioning the songs that came out of that New York location—"You Lost that Loving Feeling," "Be My Baby," "Save the Last Dance for Me," "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"—and the songwriters responsible for them—Carol King, Neil Diamond, Lieber and Stoller—it magically transforms into a centralized point on the cultural map, a place where early pop music was born and flourished. From Tom Savini, who toiled away in gore obscurity until obsessive fandom brought his geek freak sideshow out into the open to numerous character actors whose presence makes or breaks a motion picture, yet whose name is as foreign and forgotten as world capitals to the average moviegoer, there are thousands of forgotten figures vital to the story of entertainment. Add to this list a group of musicians who, as the advertising states, "played on more #1 records than The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley combined" a talented amalgamation of jazz and blues journeymen, brought together by an enterprising factory worker looking to forge ahead with his career as a songwriter and producer. Together, they created timeless music that redefined black music for all time.
Standing in the Shadows of Motown, as a title, is really a misnomer. The Funk Brothers should have never been considered part of Hitsville U.S.A.'s background. So fundamental to the overall Motown sound that no other musicians or artists, past or present, have been able to accurately recreate their sweet soul and firebrand funk, they, along with founder Barry Gordy, Smokey Robinson, and the talented producers and songwriters were all crucial cogs in an unprecedented hit making machine, one that purred like a well oiled tunesmith turbine for over a decade. It's impossible to hear "My Girl," "It's The Same Old Song," "You Can't Hurry Love," or "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" without recognizing the signature elements: the driving drumbeat; the throbbing, bobbing bass; the delicate, snaking guitars; the marching band vibes; and the ever-present slap crash of the tambourine. So to relegate them to the back of the musical bus, so to speak, deals them a grave amount of disrespect and reduces their contribution to an "almost anyone could do it" idiom. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, and yet when Motown is and has been celebrated, very little is said about the role the Funk Brothers played. Whitfield and Strong? Holland, Holland, and Dossier? Yes. But James Jamerson or Earl Van Dyke? No. So author Allan Slutsky and filmmaker Paul Justman felt compelled to bring these forgotten geniuses to the forefront, making sure their place in the history of music is safe and secure. Thanks to Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the Funk Brothers have stepped into the limelight once and for all.
The great thing this documentary does is celebrate the joy in Motown's music. Probably the most influential and exuberant noise ever to come blasting out of transistor radios, the "Motown Sound" is at once simplicity and aurally complex, instantly recognizable and universally timeless. Part of the enduring quality comes from the melodic and lyrical content. A song like "My Girl" or "The Tracks of My Tears" works not just because of the outstanding vocal performances and arrangements, but because songwriters like the verbally intricate Smokey Robinson filled their stanzas with intricate vocal lines and witty lyrics. Still, the primary reason this music comes alive, the grounds for how and why it explodes into bright shiny rainbows of life reaffirming funk, is the stellar musicianship and joyful boisterousness of the house band. Accurately and brilliantly recreated on stage for the concert portion of the film (even with less than stellar vocal talent in tow), these songs burst forth in lightning shards of energy. The minute the bass line to "Grapevine" or the stoic drumbeats of "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted" fill the speakers, the singer becomes irrelevant. The way in which simple piano chords, trebly guitar lines, thick bass hooks, and passive percussion melds into pure pop soul gold tells the whole story. Standing in the Shadows of Motown reminds both fan and freshman alike that the music created in Barry Gordy's little Detroit studio was a powerful voice in the reconfiguring of black music. It also found a way to sell it to all of America, minority and white. And it ended up resonating with a special effervescence that moved it beyond the moment and into the annuals of legend.
Make no mistake, this is a cursory overview of the Funk Brothers and their part in the history of Motown. While it seems unfair to question the scope of this fascinating and satisfying documentary, one can't help but have a nagging suspicion that there is more to the overall story than what is presented. Issues like how a song was created, the way in which now world famous hooks and melody lines were crafted and redirected, would add additional weight to the story of The Funk's contribution. And we only get very quick, sketch-like glances at some of the most fascinating and important figures in the music. No one who is a fan of funk, or music in general, questions James Jamerson's role as a genius of bass, considering he played all of his ersatz jazz and complex lines with one crocked finger. But Standing in the Shadows of Motown occasional preaches to the converted, failing to offer any additional proof of Jamerson's (or others) skills except for a bold statement of fact, a kind of cinematic "because I say so." Those in the know will shake their head approvingly. Those without an inkling will remain clueless. Also, the breakup of the Funk Brothers is hardly addressed at all. We learn that Motown up and moved, virtually overnight, to Los Angeles and that several of the band members chose to stay in Detroit. But the "why" of that circumstance is never fully explored. It seems that the move to the City of Angels was the reason the Funk Brothers fell out of favor and respect with Gordy and the gang, almost as if, along with their Motor City roots, Motown wanted to up and reinvent their history. True, more emphasis on the back story would mean less time with the music, but it would be a worthy tradeoff to understand how a group of talented men, so crucial to the success of an organization, were simply forgotten by the entity they helped create.
Other nitpicking issues about the documentary revolve around the musical choices. Apparently the filmmakers had Berry Gordy's full cooperation (this is confirmed in the commentary) to use any of the multitude of Motown hits in the film. But the concert choices are odd, to say the least, as are the performers who essay them. There is nothing wrong with "Do You Love Me," "Cool Jerk," or "Cloud Nine," but there are, frankly, better songs which exemplify the Funk Brothers luminous musicianship. Many of those songs have been mentioned before, but the obvious chronological gaps—the lack of any significant Supremes or Temptations offerings, a weak set of Four Tops tunes—stand out sharply. And no disrespect to the performers giving it the old college try for the team, but a few of them seem passively uninterested (Me'shell N'degeocello) or obsessed with over-the-top antics hoping to show off their own specialness (Master Bootsy). One of the old school singers from Motown, Martha Reeves, is interviewed for the film. So why not bring her in for a track? What about other Motown members now out of the public eye? A true celebration of the music would have been to match the unheralded Funksters with long forgotten members of the Motown family to truly resurrect the mythology once and for all. The imagination boggles at a return of singers and performers like Ms. "Dancing in the Streets" herself. And what about important figures like Smokey Robinson or Gordy himself? Did they have nothing to say on the subject? It seems odd that a story about his own company wouldn't include a soundbite or two from its founder.
Still, these are minor quibbles for what is, at its core, a wonderful and inspiring documentary. Films like Standing in the Shadows of Motown do what non-fiction movies always excel at—taking untold stories and bringing their truth and drama to the forefront. Add to this the fantastic music, the genuinely interesting tale being told, the history presented, and the jovial personalities involved and you have a film that will entertain everyone, from the student to the unenlightened, the devotee and any new kids on the block. It's a piece of history as fresh as a popular song on the radio and as memorable as your first love. The Funk Brothers were, indeed, the greatest hit machine in the history of soul music. They consistently topped the charts, inspired countless imitations, and influenced generations of musicians to come (including four mop-topped lads from Liverpool who covered their material). Standing in the Shadows of Motown is a fitting tribute to their talent, their tenacity, and their tender spirits. It is rare when a movie about music and the cutthroat nature of the industry can actually address issues of personal dignity and aptitude. Yes, the Funk Brothers worked hard. No, they did not do it for free and by all accounts, were well paid for their services. None of them got rich (or royalties for that matter), but neither were they cheated out of their services. The future is never salient in the present. While Hitsville U.S.A. was cranking out its chart toppers, no one could have envisioned the lasting effect the music would have. Years later, the artists still have the songs to remind the world of their contribution. Now the Funk Brothers have Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Their place in the pantheon is equally set.
Artisan steps up and delivers a DVD worthy of the subject matter, celebrating Standing in the Shadows of Motown with a two-disc DVD special edition. Disc One presents the film in a beautiful, near flawless anamorphic widescreen image. The 1.85:1 framing during the concert sequences is exceptional and the colors are crisp and clear. During a couple of blackouts, pixels can be viewed in the very top corners, but that is a rare exception to a wonderful transfer. From a sound standpoint (critical to a film like this), we get fantastic 6.1 DTS-ES, 5.1 Dolby-EX, or 2.0 Dolby Stereo tracks. The animated mixing board menu lets you choose any one of these terrific aural workouts, and whatever your system specs or limitations, you won't be disappointed. Of course, the performance material plays better in the multi-channel modes, but in any version we get a full rich sonic symphony. Along with the standard soundtracks, we also get a full-length commentary by author Allan Slutsky and director Paul Justman. As with any labor of love, these two sit back in self-congratulatory amazement of their own work and tend to over pitch its perfection. Still, they do present facts about Motown's participation in the film, the work required to track down the Funk Brothers, and the dizzying amazement of working with them in the old "snake pit" studio for the first time. If you don't mind the mutual backslapping, it is an informative supplement to the film. As is a trivia track, a verbal account of how a single photograph inspired the entire project and the video presentation used to finally find financing for the project. Together with the menu-based ability to focus solely on the performances and some BMW short films (huh?), the first disc is a stellar offering of the film. And we have a whole other disc of content to contend with.
And what a disc it is. Disc Two starts out with a dinner celebration, post-movie premiere between the Brothers and the filmmakers. Capturing the band on video, some for the last time, it is both heartbreaking and gladdening to see these men relish in the respect and recognition that for so long eluded them. Several speeches will have you to the verge of tears. We then get the chance to use that forgotten "angle" key to switch between shots at an impromptu jam session. This is followed by deleted scenes that, frankly, address some of the issues with the lack of background expressed before. We get to learn more about the Funk Brothers themselves, about the way in which they worked together, and their feelings for the people they helped elevate to superstardom. Next we get a memorial to the "ones who didn't make it." This video homage is also very touching. Then there is a celebration of the movie as the Funk Brothers get, "At Long Last, Glory." Add video biographies of each of the band members, a music video montage, a selected discography, further information on other bandmates, and some killer DVD-ROM content (while not available to this reviewer, other sites have commented on the fun to be had mixing your own Motown track or watching a high-definition DVD-ROM playable version of the film), and you have an exceptional supplement. Honestly, there is almost too much material here. But when it comes to the contribution of the Funk Brothers to American pop, soul, and R&B music, there is no such thing as too much. Standing in the Shadows of Motown is a stirring cinematic tribute to these brilliant sidemen and Artisan's DVD is a fitting digital document.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sometimes, life is not fair. The fact that so many of the main players in the Funk Brothers died waiting for some manner of recognition is unconscionable. The further fact that a few others passed on near the doorsteps of this movie finally getting made is near criminal. Here are men who created a signature sound, something instantly recognizable and never duplicated. That they had to wait so long, and beg so hard to have their story told, when untold millions are spent on less deserving projects, smacks of injury to insult. These men deserved better and no amount of rediscovery, reunion touring, or late career financial redress can make up for the truest slur illustrated by this film. Somewhere along the line in popular culture, the musicianship of the Funk Brothers was considered disposable. As long as Ms. Ross or Mr. Gaye was singing, who cared about the backup band? They were nameless, and probably to many should have remained so. But thankfully this movie will remedy that. Hopefully, from now on, when someone hears a Motown record, they will, naturally, think of Mr. Wonder or Ms. Welles. But because of Standing in the Shadows of Motown, they will hopefully add "with the Funk Brothers" to their foundation of trivial knowledge. After all, "Stop in the Name of Love" is just a song without the Brothers' signature sound. With it, it's a classic for all time. As is Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
It seems that as we move into a more technologically advanced society, fewer and fewer unsung novelties come crawling out of the woodwork looking for recognition and attention. Thanks to the Internet and its blog-happy pages, we see people obsessing, everyday, on the minutia that makes for the discovery of previously unheard of entities. Long lost books. Unsigned bands. Forgotten films. But it's strange that the Funk Brothers had to wallow in obscurity for so long, considering that every minute of every day, somewhere on the airwaves of American radio, a Motown song is blasting its healing happiness across the modulated amplitudes. They shouldn't have needed a web page devoted to their talent or a tell-all tomb to secure their place in pop culture. They had the songs, the sounds, the music; the bass/guitar booty bump beginning of "My Girl"; the stomping vibes tornado of "Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)"; the flute forewarning of "Reach Out I'll Be There." The throwaway nature of our social consciousness absorbed these musical milestones and simply cast their creators to the "lack of concern" side of things. But thanks to Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the importance of the Funk Brothers will never be forgotten. It will stand as a testament (like the sound they created) to their importance in the world of music. The '60s would not have been half as important a decade, sonically, if not for Motown. And without their machine, the Motor Town triumph known as Hitsville U.S.A. would have been just another line worker's pipe dream. It's time for Mr. Gordy and the rest of his talented name players to step aside for the moment. It's the Funk Brothers turn to bask in the glow of the spotlight, if just this once.
Standing in the Shadows of Motown is a great documentary. The Funk Brothers are the architects of some of America's greatest popular music. Artisan is acquitted of previous DVD disasters by rising to the occasion and creating a complex, content filled two-disc set. Case closed.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
• Director/Producer Audio Commentary: Paul Justman / Allan Slutsky
Review content copyright © 2003 Bill Gibron; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.