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
Most everyone 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 14 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.
These 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.”
Paul Justman’s 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 like crazy.”
Standing in 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.”
Easily, the 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.”
Jamerson floats 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.
The film’s 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.