Film

Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

Paul Justman's 'Standing in the Shadows of Motown' aims to recover the Funk Brothers' legacy.


Standing in the Shadows of Motown

Director: Paul Justman
Cast: as themselves): The Funk Brothers: Jack "Black Jack" Ashford, Bob Babbitt, Johnny Griffith, Joe Hunter, Uriel Jones, Joe Messina, Eddie "Chank" Willis, Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin, James "Igor" Jamerson, Eddie "Bongo" Brown, Earl "Chunk of Funk" Van Dyke, Robert White, Richard "Pistol" Allen; also appearing: Joan Osborne, Gerald Levert, Me'shell Ndegéocello, Bootsy Collins, Ben Harper, Chaka Khan, Montell Jordan, Tom Scott
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Artisan
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-11-15 (Limited release)
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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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