Friday, September 02, 2011

Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002)

USA, 116 minutes, documentary
Director: Paul Justman
Writers: Walter Dallas, Ntozake Shange, Alan Slutsky
Photography: Douglas Milsome, Lon Stratton
Editor: Anne Erikson

Greil Marcus once famously described The Motown Story 5-LP box set as "the history of James Jamerson's bass playing, on fifty-eight hits." It's virtually another one of Marcus's favored secret histories, and this essential documentary tells it like it should have been told long ago. Nearly 20 years after Jamerson's death, it plunges deeply and with a good deal of affection into the musicians responsible for the actual sounds that made all those Motown hits so indelible.

Collectively known as the Funk Brothers, these session players were mostly Detroit-area jazz musicians, many transplanted from the South in the great postwar migrations north, who prized keen playing chops and enjoyed the challenge of an anonymous day job that involved working out the kinks of seemingly endless strings of pop hits. The cash was not bad (though it could have been better) but it beat working in the auto factories. Their names may be somewhat better known now—Jamerson, Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin, Earl Van Dyke, Richard "Pistol" Allen, Robert White, Eddie Wills, and many more—but they are still mostly unknown, and this picture sets out to make that right.

It's loving and almost solemn about its mission to restore the profile of these players, and though occasionally I found it verging dangerously close to cloying it's nevertheless got its heart in the right place and, in general, the right idea about the whole thing. It pays a good deal of attention, early and often, to Jamerson, further solidifying the case for his colossal, too long overlooked presence at the Motown hit factory. Consider: the acts that he and the others supported (and arguably defined) include the Miracles, the Temptations, the Supremes, Martha & the Vandellas, the Marvelettes, Marvin Gaye, the Contours, the Jackson 5, the Four Tops, and the Spinners. If that's not a major hit parade I don't know what is.

The picture makes its most obvious points early, venturing into record stores and elsewhere for man-on-the-street interviews that make quick work of indicating how deeply Motown music has penetrated and yet how little is known about the actual musicians. The question itself about who's playing just stops people cold. "Wasn't it the Pips?" one person guesses.

Steve Jordan then goes so far as to say that, no offense to the singers, but it could have been Deputy Dawg singing those songs and as long as the Funk Brothers were making the music they still would have been hits. An exaggeration, clearly—I don't think Deputy Dawg singing with Tammi Terrelle would have worked as well as Marvin Gaye, for example—but point taken. Other hits of the time that the Funk Brothers played on (often surreptitiously, as they were under exclusivity contracts) clearly bear the stamp of their unmistakable sound as well, such as Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher" or the Capitols' "Cool Jerk."

There are numerous reminiscences and anecdotes along the way here, some more effective than others. The most interesting pieces for me are when they speak in detail about what they were doing musically, and how it contributed, as when drummer Pistol Allen, who died shortly after this film was completed, reviews the various pickups that he and the other drummers used, explicating the subtle differences between them. As he demonstrates, instantly recognizable fragments of hits, complete with many of their associations of the times still, were suddenly there for me in his brief trips around the toms and snare.

I was also fascinated by the stories of how seamlessly these musicians transitioned in the late '60s into psychedelia. Much of that charge was led by producer and songwriter Norman Whitfield, whose signature songs include "Cloud Nine" and "Ball of Confusion." But if Whitfield knew to point the way, the Funk Brothers knew how to deliver the sound, and they did.

The final piece here is footage interspersed all through of more recent reunion shows featuring younger or non-Motown singers, including Bootsy Collins, Ben Harper, Chaka Khan, Montell Jordan, Gerald Levert, Me'Shell Ndegeocello, and Joan Osborne. In a way this makes the case for the point above about Deputy Dawg. The songs sound as fresh and vital as ever regardless of who is out front holding the microphone and how they parse and phrase the lines.

The real surprise for me among these was Joan Osborne, who had an often-reviled hit in the mid-'90s, "One of Us" (about God riding the bus), which I tended to like in spite of the carping and overplay. Maybe I caught some hint of her talents in that—I don't know, I can also see how it fits the bill for tepid singer/songwriter fare—but when she launches here into "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" (listen) it's nothing less than riveting, an almost withering revelation of everything that Osborne, and the song, and yes, the Funk Brothers, have got. Because there they are, sounding better than ever with a song they never had to make their own, as Osborne is somehow managing exactly to do. This, and so many that show up here, were always theirs.

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