Review of 'Standing in the Shadows of Motown', director Paul Justman
Brecht's famous musings on the part played by anonymous workers in the construction of temples and cathedrals didn't quite run to asking which band of musicians played on more pop hits than those of Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys combined!
The Funk Brothers produced 'the sound of young America', the soundtrack to many millions of dates, parties and car journeys, the sonic inspiration to a multicoloured, post-Kennedy, pre-Vietnam world. Essentially a bunch of Detroit car workers or semi-pro musicians, they jammed late into the night in the city's jazz clubs and then segued into the Hitsville studios to realise the musical dreams of Tamla Motown songwriters, singers and producers.
We all know the singers. We all know the songs. But who pounded the bass strings to the Supremes' 'You Can't Hurry Love'? Who shimmers a tambourine just as Marvin Gaye starts to tell us 'I Heard It through the Grapevine'? And who plucked that immortal six-note guitar intro to The Temptations' 'My Girl'?
James Jamerson, Jack Ashford and Robert White are neither the household names nor the multi-millionaires their craft helped to create for the front men and women. Indeed both Jamerson and White are long dead, victims of the vicious regime run by boss Berry Gordy. But Ashford is one of the stalwarts who came together to tell their story in this wonderful film.
Constructed around a Detroit reunion live performance in 2000, where a series of guest vocalists lead the ensemble of original sessioneers, the pure joy of the music is demonstrably timeless. In between the artists swap reminiscences, humble and hilarious, of exactly how certain tunes were born and sounds honed. It is still incredible to see the poky main studio area which was able to create some majestic, sweeping rhythms and vocal textures.
It has to be said that the quality of the original vocals is sorely missed. Though Gerald Levert and, surprisingly, Ben Harper do worthy stand-ins, the likes of Bootsy Collins, Chaka Khan and Me'Shell NdegéOcello make fools of themselves.
There is enough material to remind us of the riotous, murderous cradle this music was born into - not least the huge impact of the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. In focusing on the music more than the business politics producer Alan Slutsky has delivered a ten-year labour of love. Contributions such as Dennis Coffey's, for example, about the intricacies of funk rhythm-guitar playing, stay a sensible side of technical. Nevertheless, it would have made for a more dramatic report if the producers had attempted - Michael Moore style - to doorstep Berry Gordy or his early lieutenant Smokey Robinson, to force them into an explanation of exactly how and why their employees were so shamefully short-changed. Martha Reeves's Bolshie dissent is the best we get. In avoiding bitterness, some truths are left untold.
But this movie promises to be one of those rare cinematic events - a crowd-pulling hit documentary. Whether you first snogged to the Marvellettes, got stoned to the sound of Junior Walker or lost a lover with Jimmy Ruffin's 'What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?' looping round your brain, you'll want to see who put the sounds out there for you to experience.
However, if you're tired of your elders telling you music was better in the 60s, go and see this film to be sure of your riposte because, though as manufactured as any General Motor coming off the city's assembly lines, Motown music relied on the skills of a very talented, remarkable and generous bunch of people to create a magical body of work. The end of innocence? Yes. Forgettable art? Never.