catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 19 :: 2003.10.10 — 2003.10.23


Still standing, but out of the shadows

In 1959, the Funk Brothers began their 14-year run as quite possibly the unequivocal heartbeat of Berry Gordy’s record company: Hitsville USA. As Gordy gathered the cream of the crop from Detroit’s jazz and blues scene to begin cutting tracks for his production company, he would have no idea that the ensemble would be responsible for more number one hits than the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and Elvis combined. The Funk Brothers’ combination of rhythm and blues defined the sound that we have come to know as Motown, and these men played (and co-wrote) songs for the likes of Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, and Diana Ross with examples such as “What’s Going On?”, “I Heard It Though The Grapevine”, “Reach Out I’ll Be There”, “War”, and “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me.”

The tragedy is that the Funk Brothers, while being the greatest hit machine in the history of popular music, were never given any credit for their work and remained largely broke and unknown for over 40 years.

In the mid-80s, after years of being in love with the Motown sound, Allan Slutsky found himself writing a biography/bass guitar instructional manual named Standing In The Shadows Of Motown: The Life And Music Of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson, which was released in 1989 with accompanying CDs. Although a best seller in its genre and an award winning work, it is probably the most unlikely book to ever be the basis of a Hollywood documentardy—that is until Walter Dallas and Ntozake Shange came along and, under the direction of Paul Justman and producer Sandy Passman, finally gave a face to the long overlooked Funk Brothers with their film Standing In The Shadows Of Motown (Artisan Entertainment).

Standing is more of a concert film with the history and stories of the Funk Brothers woven throughout it. Running 108 minutes, this documentary captures 6 days of performances at Detroit’s Royal Oak Music Theater (shot in 35mm with sound by the Record Plant recording studio and Kooster McAllister), six weeks of interviews with the remaining band members (also using some archival footage) and only took 14 years to make from the day that Slutsky first interviewed Jamerson’s widow to talk about royalties for his transcription book.

Standing, as a documentary, can really be separated into 4 main components: performers’ tributes to the Funk Brothers, the remaining band members talking about the performances that became legendary, re-enactments of the Funk Brothers tales and new interpretations of Motown classics with the Funk Brothers backing up the likes of Joan Osbourne, Ben Harper, Chaka Khan and Bootsy Collins (to name a few). While, the movie focuses more on the optimistic dreams that landed the Funk Brothers in Detroit and less on the heartbreak (and subsequent alcohol and drug abuse) caused from years of being forgotten and unrecognized, it unabashedly makes a strong case for the importance of, and even essentiality, of these men who single handedly evolved and crafted the Motown sound that we remember and share today.

As if this compelling, historical film were not enough, Artisan’s two-disc release includes more than the expected commentaries by the author and producer, the biographies of the Funk Brothers, and trivia; it actually goes a step further by including a Microsoft Windows Media 9 version of the film and a “Virtual Recording Studio” that features Sonic Foundry’s Acid Xpress 3.0. The idea for the feature came from Artisan’s Randy Wells who was looking for a way to allow consumers to become more interactive with the content of the film. Arranging for the remaining band members and current Funk Brothers line-up to enter the recording studio, Artisan was able to use the material recorded to create five separate audio tracks of loops (bass, guitar, organ, piano and drums). With Acid Xpress, the consumer is able to edit and mix any of the tracks to their liking thus giving the user the experience of creating their own Motown-like songs. The integration of WM9 and Acid Xpress allows the user to interact with the Standing DVD unlike any other DVD on the market.

Standing In The Shadows Of Motown may not turn any of the Funk Brothers into household names, but it goes a long way toward educating the viewer on some of popular music’s most overlooked and unknown talent.

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