05:43:51 pm on
Monday 22 Jul 2024

Funk Brothers
Jennifer Ramirez

Motown, the record label founded in 1958 which spawned some of the great music of the sixties and seventies and which produced the sound for such names as the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder was founded on the backbeat talents of a group of musicians known as the Funk Brothers. Standing in the “Shadows of Motown” appreciates their contribution to the sound of Motown and recalls the people and the times of the heyday of the Motown Sound.

I see delight in the faces of old men. 41 years after the founding members laid their first track for the dream that would eventually grow in to Motown, the Funk Brothers are back together. On the basement floor, of the garage of the Motown office, Berry Gordy was building a fledgling studio consisted of the best musicians from the blues and jazz scene, in Detroit, as well as the singers; his efforts brought much talent to the attention of the general public. And though everyone knew the Motown sound, almost no one outside the industry knew the men behind it.

That changed in 2002 when the film “Standing in the Shadows of Motown was released. Standing in the Shadows of Motown is a 2002 documentary film directed by Paul Justman. It recounts the story of The Funk Brothers, the uncredited and mainly unheralded studio musicians who were the hand picked house band by Berry Gordy in 1959.

This salute to the literally unsung and underrecognized studio heroes of Motown is so good because it is one of those unusual documentaries that combine information with wonderful entertainment. And it is one of the few nonfiction films that will have you walking out humming the score, if you are not running to the nearest store to buy Motown CDs.

The movie shifts among four components: performers lining up to offer heartfelt but uninvolving tributes to the Funk Brothers; the musicians talking about performances that switched sheet music into legendary recordings; new renditions of Motown timeless classics with the Funk Brothers backing up guest vocalists like Ben Harper; and dramatic re-creations of Funk Brother stories. These dramatizations lack the theatrical timing and phrasing of the Funk Brothers just rotating the tales, which Mr. Justman allows them to do at their own leisurely pace as they describe how the Motown founder, Berry Gordy, hired them.

The hero of the Funk Brothers themselves seems to have been the late James Jamerson, the bass player who used only one finger but seemed able to keep two times at once. Their stories about him are legion. The other original Funks were drummer Benny Benjamin, pianist Joe Hunter and guitarists Eddie Willis and Joe Messina. The movie always talks with or about possibly a dozen other musicians who played on many or most of the Motown records, but it's hard to keep them straight--because, obviously, they weren't widely known.

You may not be shocked to learn that Gordy went to the local jazz and blues clubs to recruit session musician for his record label back in the early 1960s. You may not be shocked to learn the musicians frequently earned a flat $10 a song. But you may be amazed to find out that these musicians, in a large and somewhat loose aggregate, considered themselves a band, named The Funk Brothers, and they played on virtually every Motown record until Gordy moved the company to Los Angeles in the early 1970s. If you roll with the filmmaker's logic, that means the Funk Brothers played on more number one records than the Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and Elvis combined. Yet they continued to be, as the title suggests, in the R&B shadows, extremely underpaid and known only to the most passionate music enthusiast.

The movie presents interviews with the Funk Brothers and other Detroit and Motown personalities as well as clips of new concerts. A couple of reenactments are thrown in where a visual recreation gives more focus to the moment but these are always handled very well and supplemented by voiced narrations by the real Funk Brothers. Fortunately, Robert Stack is nowhere to be seen.

There’s also an impressive but all too short clip from 1955 of guitarist Joe Messina in his days on the Soupy Sales Show. His playing is as fluid and beautiful as those played by Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. Messina sat between guitarists Robert White and Eddie Willis on all the sessions and jokes that the trio was referred to as the Oreo by the other members of the band.

In one outstanding sequence, a half dozen of these supremely relaxed men, all in their 60s and 70s, sit down to play ‘’Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,’’ adding the instruments one by one. Uriel Jones lays down the bursting yet paradoxically sensitive drumbeat, and when Bob Babbitt comes in with his walking bass, the song already sounds larger than its parts. Eddie Willis’ staccato, off-the-beat guitar strums – pause, plank! pause, plank! – add color in the form of rhythm, and by the time they’ve been topped by the exultant spangle of Jack Ashford’s tambourine, you comprehend why, in a sense, any singer could have succeeded atop this sublime chassis. Much more than just terrific musicians, the Funk Brothers treated each and every instrument as a voice, mixing them to create a unique sense of space – not a wall of sound but a gorgeously harmonic world of sound.

Though the overall impression is fairly upbeat, the movie tempers the moments of pleasure and magnificence with an examination of the torment and turmoil that so sometimes goes hand in hand with the lives of professional musicians. But rather than dwelling on the issues of alcoholism or several other personal demons, the film merely acknowledges them and quickly moves on to emphasis on the more optimistic parts of the Funk Brothers story.

There’s a reasonable amount of humor in the film. Drummer “Pistol” Allen reveals that he was forced out of CPA school because he kept playing drumbeats during his typing class. Drummer Uriel Jones explains that he initially started playing trombone but had to give up because his curiosity in boxing regularly left him with a busted lip. Drums seemed a far better choice.

There are individual politics in ‘’Motown,’’ because the Funk Brothers had to cope with the whims of a genius as wily and autocratic as Fidel Castro and far more unpredictable: the bassist James Jamerson, who is called tortured in the narration by Andre Braugher. The movie was inspired by Allan Slutsky’s informative book on Jamerson from which the movie takes its title: ‘’Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson,’’ a mixture biography and bass-guitar instruction manual that has to be the most unlikely book in movie history ever to become the root of a fantastic documentary.

Actually, when taken as a whole the movie as about the joy the surviving members feel in finally getting their moment in the highlight. It also features recent live performances of several Motown hit songs, with the Funk Brothers backing up Gerald Levert, Me’shell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Ben Harper, Bootsy Collins, Chaka Khan, and Montell Jordan. The impetus behind making the film was to bring these important players out of anonymity.  In fact, that’s the whole justification behind the production in the first place. You can really see the passion with which the Funk Brothers approach their newfound celebrity status. Some of the guys had even stopped playing altogether after Motown moved. To see them finally getting the recognition that avoided them all their lives will truly warm your heart.

One small quibble is that the movie lacks a clarifying touch. Nobody notes that so much of the transformative artistry of the Funk Brothers’ bumping rhythm lines gave muscle to the longest streak of love songs centering on sexual paranoia. Much of the Motown catalog is about fearful romantic obsession; one such gem, ‘’It’s a Desperate Situation,’’ was co-written by Mr. Hunter and recorded by Gaye. Perhaps this movie will force Motown to rerelease great, forgotten albums like Griffith’s solo work.

''Standing in the Shadows of Motown'' delivers marvelous interviews with the surviving Funk Brothers, who provide a tasty insider history of 4 a.m. recording sessions inside ''the snake pit'' as well as a chilling description of their final kiss-off from Berry Gordy, the Motown mogul who treated them like indentured servants. The interviews are woven around a reunion concert given in Detroit in 2000, with assorted modern-day singers filling in for the Motown greats. The most exciting anecdotes revolve around the man who was, by universal assent, the genius of the group,  the late bassist James Jamerson, who caressed his low notes into an angel's ostinato, so that he seemed to be wandering through, and creating, every dimension of a song. No studio musician ever cast a better shadow.

Jennifer Ramirez, known as Jenny, has reviewed and edited for 5+ years. Originally from Toronto, she grew up performing and competing in rhythmic gymnastics. Jenny enjoys reviewing movies, books and music albums. She describes herself as funny and righteous, with a 'go that extra mile' attitude. Her philosophy is quite simple: try to live life to the fullest Jenny writes that hr passion is books. She reads and reviews current and back-list literary fiction, crime fiction, thrillers, occasionally science fiction, and narrative nonfiction. She also loves music. She's a huge fan of The Maine and All Time Low! Joy is her favorite word and creativity is something she can't live without.

More by Jennifer Ramirez:
Tell a Friend

Click above to tell a friend about this article.