||Standing in the shadows of Motown
2002 - PG - 116 Mins.
|Director: Paul Justman|
|Producer: Alan Slutsky|
|Written By: Alan Slutsky|
|Starring: The Funk Brothers, Andre Braugher, Joan Osborne, Gerald Levert, Ben Harper, Chaka Kahn, Montell Jordan, Bootsy Collins |
|Review by: David Rolston
As fickle as individual taste in music tends to be, most people can agree on one thing: they love Motown. For many of us, the music that came from Berry Gordy’s Detroit based studio is as recognizable as a nursery rhyme, and the admittedly tired cliché in this case applies: the music of Motown has been the soundtrack to many a life. With the release of the 2002 documentary feature “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” fans-turned-filmmakers shine a light on important contributors to the Motown story and history of popular music who prior to this film, were virtually unknown to anyone aside from fellow musicians. As Grammy award winning session Drummer Steve Jordan states early on, as great as the numerous vocalists who emerged from Motown’s hit machine often were, one could have recorded “Deputy Dog” singing over those tracks and they still would have been hits. The hooks were that good, the arrangements were that good, and most of all, the musicians were that good. Motown was indeed through the sixties and seventies, a hit machine that made Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross into superstars. According to Motown owner Berry Gordy:
Tuning up history in the Snakepit.
“My own dream for a hit factory was shaped by principles I learned on the Lincoln-Mercury assembly line. At the plant, cars started out as just a frame, pulled along on conveyor belts until they emerged at the end of the line - brand spanking new cars rolling off the line. I wanted the same concept for my company, only with artists and songs and records. I wanted a place where a kid off the street could walk in one door an unknown and come out another a recording artist…a star.”
In pursuit of this goal, Gordy scoured the local Jazz clubs and introduced himself to a number of the best drummers, bass players, keyboardists and guitarists, a number of which eventually came to call Motown’s Studio A their home. The cramped smoky studio dubbed “The snake pit” was the home away from home for a racially mixed group of men known only to each other by the self anointed nickname “The Funk Brothers”. These musicians anchored Gordy’s “Hitsville USA” hit factory, and made it a reality producing more number one hits than any unit in history, and in the process making Motown a household name. To call the tracks these men produced “influential” would be an understatement of monumental proportions, and yet because Motown in the early days only released singles, they never received credit for their performances, which were rendered in pressure filled sessions that often went twelve or more hours a day, and for which the musicians received only $10 per song. Their techniques, and approach to the performance and recording process became a matter of fable and lore for the few aficionados who knew of their contributions.
The secret history of the Motown's house band might very well have remained a secret, were it not for Philadelphia born musician Alan Slutsky, best known for his “Dr. Licks” instructional guitar and base books. Slutsky set out to write a how-to he entitled “Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson” which in its original conception was intended simply to teach students the baselines of the late Jamerson. When Slutsky began to do research for a biographical section on Jamerson’s career, the project blossomed into something more ambitious.
Slutsky found Jamerson’s wife through the musician’s union, and with her help, made contact with the surviving funk brothers, hoping to ply them for information about Jamerson’s techniques and influences. Hearing them tell their stories, he realized that he had stumbled upon something far more important: that these men were in fact, the secret ingredient that in the long debated "Motown" sound, and they had never received credit for their accomplishments. When Slutsky's Jamerson book won the Ralph A. Gleason award as best Music Book of 1989, he was further convinced of the importance of the Funk Brothers story, and began to plan how he might put together a documentary film about Jamerson and the rest of the Funk brothers, and in the process right what he saw as an injustice.
It took Slutsky a soul rending eleven years to finally raise the financing to put the documentary film project, “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” together, with many near misses, starts and stops, and a budget that improbably expanded with each incarnation. Ultimately Slutsky prevailed on behalf of the men he had idolized and eventually befriended, and the resulting film succeeds both as homage and long overdue vindication. The surviving members are featured in concert, backing a number of well known singers including Joan Osborne, Gerald Levert, Bootsy Collins, Chaka Kahn and Meshell Ndegeocello performing covers of a number of seminal songs from the vast Motown library. These performances are magical, as one feels almost instantly transported back to Studio A, as soon as the Funk Brothers begin to play, and that distinctive Motown sound fills the air.
Providing a stage for these men to perform the songs they made famous was in large part the goal of the film, and the performance clips have established a second career for the surviving Funk brothers, who have been touring steadily ever since the film was released. This was always one of the primary goals of the film, and makes “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” the successful vehicle that Slutsky always dreamed it would be for his idols.
As a documentary, it is somewhat less successful at telling the individual stories of the Funk brothers. We gain very little appreciation of them as individuals, or their importance to music history. It’s not that the material isn’t present, but if you are not already familiar with the players, it can be hard to follow, and this is a substantial flaw considering that one of the central conceits of “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” established early on, is that the public at large has no idea who they were or even that they existed at all. The film begins it's biographical section with an evaluation of Jamerson, largely considered within the music world, to have been the musical genius who literally invented the vocabulary of electric base through his Motown performances. His baselines have been imitated and expanded upon by countless musicians since, most of whom never even learned the name of the man they were copying. This context is almost entirely missing from the film. We get instead the desciption of how Jamerson played a stick and string stuck in and anthill as a child, or the tale of how he reluctantly arrived at the studio after a Jazz gig at the behest of Marvin Gaye, who simply had to have the “Jamerson” feel. Jamerson was in no state to record, and was too drunk to even be able to sit on his stool. As legend has it, he played the incredible baseline for the song, lying flat on his back in the middle of the Studio A floor. The story reveals a lot about Jamerson given the proper context, but that context is often missing from the film, as if the filmmakers expect you to already be familiar with the subject, which for the great majority of viewers simply isn’t going to be the case.
Just how overlooked was Jamerson? He had to scalp a ticket to Motown’s 25th anniversary show, and sat in the balcony watching the celebration of a Motown's music that he was integral to, yet had never been recognized for. He died shortly thereafter, from complications related to years of alcoholism at the tender age of 46. There’s certainly much more to Jamerson’s story here, but the film barely scratches the surface.
You do get a sense of the respect other musicians had for the Funk brothers, although again, one suspects that there are many more musicians who would have had something to say about them. Marshall Crenshaw for example, wrote an obituary for Jamerson, published in Rolling Stone, and was the piece that first got Slutsky interested in him. Some of the experts interviewed in the film (Don Was for example) are well known within the music industry, but aren’t going to register with the general public for whom the film was designed. The biographical storyline is at best meandering and the choice of dramatic recreations episodic. What’s missing are the untold stories about the recordings, and the experience of working with the artists themselves. Imagine a film about producer George Martin that steers away from discussion of his work with the Beatles and you get an idea of how "Standing in the shadows of Motown" frustrates.
In comparison those elements provide the very foundation of “Tom Dowd & The Language of Music”, a 2003 documentary that also covers the contributions of a little known music industry pioneer. That film remains sharply focused on its subject and his contributions to the history of recorded music, and in many ways a more successful film that lays out Dowd’s personal history, and important contributions to the role of ecording engineer, and accomplishments as arranger and producer. In “Tom Dowd” the filmmakers focused on Dowd's relationships with the artists with whom he worked. Aside from a few all too brief discussions of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, the famous Motown artists and composers are largely absent from “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” and were meant to infer the depth of their creative collaborative contributions. In the interviews with the Funk brothers, there are many interesting stories one suspects are barely a cocktail away, but the film seems to shy away from them. In one segment that seems cut from a larger whole, a group is gathered round as stories of sessions past spill out, but it's almost as if the stories that had everyone so clearly entertained were over before the cameras started to roll.
Any film of this type is by its nature melancholic, when you consider that half of the people in the film are no longer around to be feted, and it seems that the director felt obliged creatively (and perhaps contractually) to emphasize the sunny side of the Funk Brothers story, avoiding any discussion of their inner demons, or the drugs and alcohol dependencies that destroyed several of the members, and more than a few of Motown’s greatest stars, or the business aspects of how Motown worked, other than a segment on the fateful day when musicians arrived for work to find the studio closed for good, Motown having unceremoniously moved its headquarters to Los Angeles. While the film features 30 Motown songs, and thanks Berry Gordy for his support, one is left with unanswered questions about compensation, unpaid royalties, union rules that were systematically bypassed in the Motown studios, and the fact that the Motown official website doesn’t have a single mention of the Funk brothers either collectively or individually. The Funk brothers unanimously seem to feel they deserved better, but never come across as bitter. In an early segment, Uriel Jones talks about the mystery surrounding the success of the Motown sound, and how people attributed it to all sorts of things (Detroit soul food, the wood in the studio floor), everything but the musicians themselves. No one outside of the artists and producers themselves, knew about the tight knit group of who played together for years in local jazz clubs, and in studio sessions that often occurred seven days a week. In talking about each other, and seeing the rapture that crosses their faces during the performances, it is easy to understand that in many ways, the chance to play music and make a living at it was its own reward. The two surviving drummers were both near death when the film was finally made, and yet you would never know it from the concert footage, or seeing Richard “Pistol” Allen demonstrating the signature drum intros that each of the three funk brother drummers were famous for. It’s staggering to find that Allen passed away shortly after the concert was filmed in 2002.
At one point Slutsky relates how he was having dinner with the late guitarist Robert White, who played the seminal guitar lick that opens “My Girl”, a series of notes as distinctive and well known as any in the annals of music history. Nothing special, according to White but something that just “worked”. Just as the waiter was taking their order, as serendipity would have it, “My Girl” began to play, and for a moment White’s face lit up, then clouded over. Slutsky asked White why he didn’t tell the waiter he was the man who had played that famous guitar part, and White replied that nobody would either believe him or care about the stories of an old fool. “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” is if nothing else, a heartfelt introduction to a collection of artists who deserve some long overdue recognition for their invaluable contributions to the timeless music of Motown, even if the film only scratches the surface of a story that will leave music fans wanting more. Fortunately, the DVD offers exactly that, as a second disk has additional interview footage, a dinner with the surviving funk brothers where stories flow more freely, and more in-depth material about the recording techniques used, and the individual performers. See the film, but if you’re a true Motown music fan, you may want to buy or rent the DvD.