Standing in the Shadows of Motown

The Funk Brothers had more #1 hits that Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys put together, but few recognise the name. Their music, on the other hand, is timeless: they were the musicians on all the Motown hits in its heyday. It’s almost tragic how these guys contributed to shaping the soundscape of the 1960s but were hardly ever acknowledged as more than the guys in the back behind Marvin Gaye or Smokey Robinson.

Now comes an extraordinary documentary that finally shines the spotlight on them. We learn all about how after having rock & roll “stolen” from them by the white boys in the ‘50s, the Black jazz and blues musicians revolutionised pop music again in Berry Gordy’s little Detroit studio, Hitsville USA, aka the Snakepit! Paul Justman’s film shows us how the Brothers created and regularly reinvented the Motown sound, taking off from jazz and blues licks, adding a taste of twist and doo-wop, experimenting with Afro-Cuban rhythms and psychedelic vibes, fusing all of it into the catchiest grooves. Even more important than the nifty arrangements is how Motown’s music inspires as much as it makes you groove. As Ben Harper (one of many contemporary artists who come in to jam with the Funk Brothers) perfectly puts it, they made “soul music, music that gives you hope and makes you feel like you wanna feel.”

About the featured performers, I did find it disappointing at first how they brought in tourists like Chaka Kahn or Bootsy Collins to sing with them instead of reuniting with surviving Motown legends like Diana Ross or Stevie Wonder, but when you think of it’s a good thing because the band is not overshadowed, they are the stars for once: Joe Messina and Eddie Willis on guitars, Joe Hunter and Johnny Griffith playing the keyboards, Bob Babbitt on bass, Richard “Pistol” Allen and Uriel Jones accompanying each other on drums and tambourine virtuoso (really!) Jack Ashford. Not to forget the Brothers who passed away but are still there in spirit: bandleader and pianist Earl Van Dyke, bass player James Jamerson (“Motown’s heartbeat”), drummer Benny “Papa Zita” Benjamin, guitarist Robert White and conga player Eddie “Bongo” Brown.

I expected the film to be a good “Behind the Music”, but it’s much more than that. You grow to care for these guys and this family they formed in the Snakepit and on the road. It’s not even a race thing, as two of them are white. That they could groove is all that mattered to the gang. The anecdotes they tell are sometimes funny, sometimes bittersweet, but always interesting and endearing. I got so involved with them that by the last half hour, the musical numbers brought tears to my eyes. Hearing “What’s Going On” (the title track of arguably the greatest LP ever recorded) put in context with archival images of the social unrest of the late ‘60s, “What becomes of the broken hearted” sung passionately by Joan Osborne, or “Ain’t no Mountain High Enough” doubling as an homage to the Brothers who died before getting proper recognition… Let’s hope that this documentary can finally introduce to the world the rest of them who’ve been standing in the shadows for too long.