in the Shadows of Motown
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 15 November 2002
Some kind of peace
Every man in his mind is free.
You're a million miles from reality.
You can be what you wanna be.
-- Marvin Gaye, "Cloud Nine"
Music... has been one of the main vehicles of Free
Expression Of the Negro during his long struggle for human
dignity. We are proud to be part of this movement.
-- Hitsville, U.S.A. advertisement, 1963
The formula was the musicians.
-- Uriel Jones, Standing in the Shadows of Motown
agrees, now: the Motown sound is brilliant and beloved. It's also
well recognized that the music -- sung by such miracle-workers as
Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops, Smokey
Robinson, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas -- emerged against a
particular background: industrial Detroit during the U.S. Civil
Rights Movement. At the center of this remarkable moment -- which
lasted some fourteen years -- was Berry Gordy's Hitsville, U.S.A.
From 1959 until 1972 (when the company moved to L.A., with "no
warning and no acknowledgement"), an astounding collection of
musicians hunkered down in Studio A, better known as "the snake
pit," less well known as Gordy's garage.
relentlessly inventive artists called themselves the Funk Brothers,
in recognition of the rich, undulating rhythms they brought to what
was otherwise basic pop-R&B. They came to think of themselves as a
family, working long hours for $10 a song, playing at local clubs to
make ends meet and to be able just to hang out, apart from the
day-in-day out production push at Hitsville. They played for the
love of it, and for each other. The usual Motown myths, as
incomplete as any in self-loving American nostalgia, forget to
mention the Funk Brothers, much as Gordy tended to do at the time.
The songs rose on the charts; Gordy was deemed a genius; Stevie
Wonder and Diana Ross became superstars. "When the dust cleared,"
observes keyboard player Joe Hunter, "we realized it was all over
and we were being left out of the dream."
Standing in the Shadows of Motown, based on Allan Slutsky's
1989 book about gifted bass player James Jamerson, aims to recover
the Funk Brothers' legacy, or rather, to get it documented while
some of them are still alive (indeed, the urgency of the project has
been underlined by the post-filming deaths of drummer Pistol Allen
and keyboardist Johnny Griffith). Surely, their invisibility is a
terrible oversight, but it's hardly unusual in the music business
(who can name the sensational artists behind big-ticket acts like
Mary J. Blige or Madonna, Usher or David Bowie? Many are session
players tapped to tour or record, sometimes repeatedly, and most
remain unknown, except to fellow musicians).
As several of
the Brothers joke about other producers' efforts to replicate the
winning "formula," then and now, drummer Steve Jordan observes, "You
could have had Deputy Dawg singing on [any of these tracks] and it
would have been a hit." While it's hard to imagine tunes by Marvin
Gaye or Smokey Robinson sounding quite as good by someone else, it's
easy to understand the idea here -- the Funk Brothers' sound was
solid, consistent, and indefatigably original. They brought
with them a range of experiences: classical music, underground jazz
clubs, and strip joints; many had moved North from Tennessee and the
Carolinas to work in auto plants; and they all found their way to
Hitsville. There, as a group, Don Was observes, "They could swing
the Shadows of Motown
takes up its good cause in mostly effective ways: archival photos
and interviews with now deceased members (keyboardist Earl Van Dyke,
whose playing was so aggressive they called it "guerilla piano"),
interviews with surviving members (percussionist and "tambourine
man" Jack Ashford, keyboardist Joe Hunter, drummers Richard "Pistol"
Allen and Uriel Jones, guitarists Eddie Willis and Joe Messina,
bassist Bob Babbitt), and performances with contemporary artists:
Gerald Levert on "Reach Out I'll Be There," Me'shell Ndegéocello
leaving all kinds of effective space in "Cloud Nine," Bootsy Collins
wearing a pink feather boa for "Cool Jerk," Ben Harper on "Ain't Too
Proud To Beg," Joan Osborne bearing down on "What Becomes Of The
Brokenhearted," and Chaka Kahn and Montell Jordan all over "Ain't No
Mountain High Enough."
least effective scenes involve reenactments of stories, for
instance, about Jamerson -- actors feign sleep in a car on a snowy
night, windows closed, as the one playing Jamerson pulls out a jar
of stinky pigs' feet -- the narrator, drummer Uriel Jones, recalls
events with enough verve that the image just seems extraneous, even
if it is cleverly accompanied by the Temptations' "The Way You Do
the Things You Do": "The way you smell so sweet / You know, you
could've been some perfume."
over much the film, as inspiration, as emblem of loss, as hope for
the future. The opening credits sequence features a reenactment of
Jamerson as a boy, running along a riverside, fashioning a
rudimentary bass with string and a stick, as Walter Dallas and
Ntozake Shange's narration, read by Andre Braugher, refers to "the
days of American innocence," days about to be seriously shaken by
the "cultural tidal wave in [Elvis Presley's] hips and music." Such
language speaks to an understandable nostalgia and generalization,
appealing to Standing in the Shadows' presumed "crossover"
audience, but it's also rehearsing the same mythologies that it
would do well to debunk. This "American innocence" has always been a
fabrication, designed to let dominant cultural denizens off various
political and material hooks.
That said, the
film appears less interested in this proverbial "innocence," than in
the setting it created for Jamerson: he had to overcome myths before
he could create them. Passionate and seemingly endlessly creative,
he changed the face of popular music forever, with bass lines moving
and unforgettable. One particularly entertaining and frankly
incredible story has him unable to sit on a stool down at the snake
pit, and so, he played "What's Going On" while lying on his back on
the studio floor.
celebratory focus on such wild talents and behaviors means that it
can only allude to historical details, as background rendered in
archival footage: police hosings, Martin Luther King Jr.'s
assassination, the 1967 Detroit rebellions, and the ideological as
well as sales competitions with Stax/Volt. Many of these details are
available in Suzanne E. Smith's insightful reconsideration of the
period, Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics
of Detroit (for instance, Gordy hired mostly white men to manage
Motown, in the legal and accounting departments, and efforts by
Gaye, Wonder, and the Temps to address their struggles with racism
were resisted by the company, who preferred lucrative love songs
with easy, "white" beats).
The film also
offers glimpses of the unpredictable, occasionally dangerous world
the Funk Brothers inhabited, mainly through their stories: Uriel
Jones tells about conceiving Afro Cuban beats while playing after
hours with exotic dancer Lottie the Body, then bringing them to the
studio the next day; Joe Hunter recalls a group of them laying their
guns on a table to settle an argument over getting paid; and Johnny
Griffith remembers his mentor Hunter telling him not to worry too
much about pleasing producers: "Just play," he said, "They don't
know what they listening to anyway."
Whether or not
you know what you're listening to, Standing in the Shadows of
Motown invites pleasure and discernment in listening. This holds
even if you're listening to nothing: when Me'Shell asks Bob Babbitt
how he felt about being white, when King was killed and race
tensions ran especially high, he lapses into silence and she pats
him, reassuring, understanding. The moment is left unresolved, and
the film retains its focus -- on the magic wrought in the snake pit,
in the Funk Brothers' ideal space.
Click here to read Dan
Jack "Black Jack" Ashford
Eddie "Chank" Willis
Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin
James "Igor" Jamerson
Eddie "Bongo" Brown
Earl "Chunk of Funk" Van Dyke
Richard "Pistol" Allen
PG - Parental
Some material may
not be appropriate