Soul to soul

Detroit’s Funk Brothers — the foundation of the Motown sound.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown is, on the surface, a documentary in the usual sense, lined with emotive testimonial, dramatic present-tense re-creation of events and concert footage that brings it all home. But like any labor of love, it’s more a document of hope and evanescence, a wish for what once was. The film ultimately functions as an atonement — a call for the world to sit up and give props to the group of musicians who actually made the Motown records we still love so much: the Funk Brothers. Simply put, these were the lucky and hardworking musicians who found themselves riding a cyclone, or at least making hay inside the cyclone. It’s mind-boggling to consider their chart success — more Billboard hits than the Beatles, the Stones and Elvis together.

So there’s no small irony when a film about a group of predominantly black musicians operating on the fringes of glory for 40 years opens on the same weekend as 8 Mile, a hugely popular Hollywood vehicle for a white musician working quite well in a black idiom. The beat goes on, a cynic would say.

But a cynic wouldn’t stay in such a state after seeing the movie and letting the deep love and friendship that the fellas shared wash over the screen like a wave. Director Paul Justman and writer-producer Alan Slutsky keep it focused and don’t attempt to de-romanticize the mythology. These were Detroit guys working to make a living, playing jazz in clubs, taking road gigs with whomever while also informing the Beatles and Stones. But their story only screws you into your seat when they’re presented as “soul” musicians, playing “soul” music, in Detroit, on the songs that have been like shoes to us around here.

The film tries to get at this question ... and it’s a slippery thing. What is soul? As a quality attributed to a friend or someone we admire, it’s a spirit that’s the product of having lived. It’s the result of having said the right and wrong thing at the wrong and right time, of having loved too hard, too long. It’s knowing the absurdity of love and still loving. It’s faith when cynicism is easier. Soul is, as Al Green says, “fearing no evil.” Maybe that describes it best.

These guys were buoyed by each other and the fact that no one else was doing what they could, all the while taking care of their families. Soul is a quality of heart, especially after you know all there is to fear. Solomon Burke dreamed of writing a soul song that, if sung by every man and woman, would save the world. Well, Motown didn’t save the world, but it changed it forever and for the better. But the point is that these guys were so far inside the dream that the dream was untrue, or unreal, for them. To tear the mythology down would be to simply say what’s always been and still is true for musicians: They didn’t get paid enough.

So, as always, we let the music do the talking. The concert footage — particularly Joan Osborne’s passionate reading of Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?” — keeps reminding us why we care. As a musical genre, soul is a little easier to get to. In fact, it seems that if a producer were to take the concrete elements of a Motown record — it starts with a groove, a tambourine, then a piano played like a rhythm guitar, a swirling Hammond organ, a four-on-the-floor kick-snare drum pattern, percolating guitar slides with quarter-note “chinks,” unbelievably playful bass lines, counterpoint horn charts and sweeping strings — he could easily reproduce it. Thank God for those Bruce Willis records, which proved once and for all that it ain’t that easy. Soul music remains dependent on that mysterious quality of heart we discussed above, a quality consistently captured in the movie.

Standing in the Shadows lets Berry Gordy off the hook if you’re in the camp that says it’s a criminal travesty that James Jamerson, the bassist who defined pop-soul bass playing, had to scalp a ticket to sit in the balcony at the Motown 25 party. But if you understand that this is a star-based business in a celebrity-driven world, you reluctantly accept that these musicians are getting far more recognition than most and never as much as they deserve. Such is life.

The film is also light on Holland-Dozier-Holland, Smokey Robinson and Norman Whitfield, the guys who wrote the bulk of this tremendous music. It does try to include the arrangers in the Motown diaspora, but ultimately it’s strictly about the guys who were shoulder-to-shoulder and ear-to-ear in the “snake pit,” the double-edged moniker for the studio on West Grand Boulevard. Now we all know their names: Jack Ashford, Bo White, Benny Benjamin, Johnny Griffith, Uriel Jones, Bob Babbitt, among others. Those of us making records around here already knew their names, and honored them every time we played or wrote a note. They’re soul players, not pop, jazz or rock, with a jaw-dropping sense of timing and tradition.

A couple years ago, I made a record called What We Talk of … When We Talk, essentially an extremely humble homage to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and the Funk Brothers. I tried to talk to all the guys who were still around town and had participated in the making of Gaye’s record. This was before the appearance of Ben Edmonds’ terrific book about the day-by-day goings-on then. I finally tracked down Joe Hunter, the first piano player in the snake pit, and a hopeful, beautiful guy. We got to talking about the lack of glory for all these gifted artists, until he just smiled and said, “Stewart, you can’t copyright sweatin’.”

E-mail Stewart Francke at [email protected].

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