When was the last time you and all those around you cheered
out loud at a motion picture? After all...they're just images on a screen.
A trick of the light. They're not real people up there...are they? Well, last
night, in a downtown theater...a crowd of 300 or so lucky viewers responded
viscerally to a performance that was so exciting, so invigorating, so worthy
that it demanded a response. The particular moment was at the conclusion of
Joan Osborne's spectacular rendition of "What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted,"
but it was the whole film we were responding to. Fronting an amazing band
of studio professionals, Ms. Osborne gave it her all and grasped ownership
of a song that had been the personal property of Jimmy Ruffin for decades.
She wouldn't have been able to do it without the remarkable performance of
that group of musicians, though. They call themselves the Funk Brothers, and
though you've never seen a CD under that name down at the local record shop,
they've played on more hit records than "the Beatles, the Stones, the
Beach Boys and Elvis Presley combined!" They were the house band at Motown
Records, and this is their story.
The film is entitled Standing in the Shadows of Motown because that's where these men laboured for years. In the shadows. Shadows cast by giants including The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, and all the other singers whose hits were built on the solid foundation provided by these gentlemen. Some days they would work for 14 straight hours in the studio, Hitsville USA, the basement of a house in Detroit. Dirt floor and a sheet of plywood on which sat the grand piano attended by the late, great Earl Van Dyke. Robert White on a chair, playing his big guitar; James Jamerson, perhaps the most influential bassist in the world provided the bottom end; Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin laying down the solid beat; Eddie "Bongo" Brown on congas. These are the dear departed, but their spirit, their talent, and their funk found continuity in the guitarwork of Joe Messina and Eddie Willis; Joe Hunter and Johnny Griffith still pound the ivories; backbeat is supplied by Richard "Pistol" Allen and Uriel Jones; Bob Babbitt plays amazing bass and Jack Ashford plays vibes and makes one understand the incredible musicality of the tambourine! What a band!
Utilizing some carefully chosen archival film to set the stage, and intercutting it with new concert footage of the band backing modern artists doing the Motown hits, some very entertaining interview material and artistic re-enactments of key moments in their past director Paul Justman has created an informative, evocative and I would venture to add, important, document. The concert footage is fantastic. The band shines, and while the singers are not Smokey or Marvin or Diana these contemporary performers don't have to replicate the original sound because the band does that. Never credited on record until Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, The Funk Brothers were just the faceless geniuses behind the incredible grooves of dozens of hit records. When they visited England as part of the Sound of Young America Tour they were greeted at airport by young Brits presenting themselves as "the James Jamerson Appreciation Society." Unfortunately Jamerson didn't make that trip! But they had fans!
The reenactments are silent black and white, virtual documentaries of events told in voice-overs by the musicians. They show the pre-teen Jamerson building a 'bass" from a bowed twig and an elastic band, making the ants dance. We see a young Robert White nailing a string to the side of his clapboard house, turning the wall into a "guitar." We're on the road with the band when Jamerson is thrown out on the wintry highway guilty of eating pigs feet, smoking cigars and just being a pest in the stuffy station wagon they toured in. And as Detroit burned in the riots following the death of Martin Luther King...we see the black band members protecting their white Funk Brothers from the angry crowds outside Hitsville USA! The interviews are sometimes funny, even hilarious...but also deeply moving as Meshell Ndegeocello's questions about racism and the color difference bring Bob Babbitt to tears.
Ndegeocello is one of the guest singers. She does smoldering versions of "You've Really Got a Hold On Me" and "Cloud Nine." Joan Osborne shows herself to be one of this decade's great soul singers on "Heat Wave" and her extraordinary take on Ruffin's classic. Bootsy Collins is resplendent in satin and feathers as he does The Countours' "Do You Love Me" (a song the Funk Brothers thought never had a chance) and "Cool Jerk." Who is that dancer? Whew! "Reach Out I'll Be There" and "Shotgun" are essayed by Gerald Levert. What a voice he has! And the always great Chaka Khan reprises Marvin's "What's Going On." Then, joined by Montell Jordan, they rip into "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." The theatre walls were sweating. Everyone in the audience was seriously feeling the groove!
This reviewer managed to win a copy of the soundtrack (Hip-O Records, 2002) by knowing that Motown was Detroit, so we kept the funk going all the way home. But the soundtrack, as good as it is, does not capture the intensity of the performances that we saw on the screen. You don't get to see the faces of these musicians, now in their 60s, proud of their accomplishments, missing their friends, but still playing the funkiest, dancingest, hip-shakingest music you've ever heard. Standing in the Shadows of Motown is a remarkable film. It will be released on DVD in April, but if you get the chance see it in the theater. It is a life enhancing experience!