The Real Motown Sound

You didn't know that you wanted to see a movie about the Funk Brothers, but, believe me, you do. You've probably never heard of the Funk Brothers, and neither had I. But anybody who loves Motown (and who in his right mind doesn't?) has heard their music over and over. Anybody who lived through the '60s danced to the Funk Brothers' beat. These unsung heroes were the sound of Motown; it was their grooves behind Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, the Marvelettes, the Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, the Four Tops and Stevie Wonder. Though they rarely received any mention, the Funk Brothers played on more No. 1 records than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Elvis Presley combined. It's their story that's celebrated in "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," director Paul Justman's glorious, bittersweet musical tribute to the soul of Detroit R&B.

Seven of the Funk Brothers have survived to tell the tale--and they are wonderful storytellers, particularly percussionist-vibraphonist Jack Ashford and piano player Joe Hunter. Six have died, including hard-living drummer Benny Benjamin and James Jamerson, whose pioneering licks on the Fender bass created the blueprint for future electric-guitar players. For the movie, the remaining original team reunite to share their war stories and revisit the legendary Studio A, where "Heat Wave" and "Shop Around" and hundreds of other hits were recorded. Using their arrangements, they take to the stage in Detroit to perform more than a dozen classics with singers Joan Osborne ("What Becomes of the Brokenhearted"), Ben Harper ("I Heard It Through the Grapevine"), Meshell Ndegeocello ("You've Really Got a Hold on Me"), Gerald Levert ("Shot Gun") and others. These dynamite numbers reinforce a point made in the movie: with these guys laying down the grooves, just about anybody could have made these songs hits.

The Funk Brothers were jazz musicians at heart, and after they finished working for Berry Gordy they'd hit the late-night jazz clubs, and later incorporate their riffs into the Motown sound. Some of the Funk Brothers were white guys who grew up listening to the "race music" of the '50s--guitarist Phil Messina and bass player Bob Babbitt--and when the Detroit riots broke out in '67, their fellow musicians were prepared to put their lives on the line to protect their hides. Justman's movie gives us a thumbnail sketch of the social and musical forces propelling the Motown sound. It has some of the sweetness, melancholy and triumph that infused "The Buena Vista Social Club," another movie concerned with redressing a longstanding musical injustice. But there's little bitterness on display here. What blasts off the screen like a heat wave, burning in the heart, is the sheer toe-tapping, booty-shaking joy of making music.

Join the Discussion