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Neck and Neck: Joe Hunter (left), Eddie Willis (center) and Joe Messina relive Motown's glory days in a new documentary.

Band of Renown

'Standing in the Shadows of Motown' unearths the real brains behind Hitsville, USA

By Richard von Busack

I KNOW YOU ALL get a lot of Motown unwillingly. I know that the oldies stations play the same four or five tracks all the time and that hearing a Supremes hit can give you that depressed feeling of watching squares frolic, as if you had just stumbled into a TGI Friday's. But seeing Standing in the Shadows of Motown, built around a Funk Brothers reunion show in Detroit, reveals so much about how the music was put together that it all sounds new and exciting again.

The Funk Brothers was the collective name for the 13 or so backup musicians at Motown Records. They're interviewed by director Paul Justman, with the assistance of producer and writer Alan Slutsky, author of a book on the Funk Brothers. The gang revisits the studio where it all took place, producer Berry Gordy's dirt-floor garage. Gordy called it "Studio A"; the session men who spent 14 hours a day in it called it the "Snake Pit." Jazz musicians from Detroit's many nightclubs were recruited to arrange and play those famous Holland-Dozier-Holland songs (Brian Holland is interviewed here). Gordy's system wasn't too different from Chevrolet's, really--assembling hits one piece at a time. As percussionist Steve Jordan claims, you could have put drawling cartoon character Deputy Dawg in front of these arrangements, and he would have sounded OK.

The reunion concert is top-drawer; the vocalists include the inimitable Bootsy Collins, Joan Osborne, Chaka Khan and good-looking, good-hearted but kind of middling Ben Harper. Me'Shell NdegéOcello makes the biggest impression. A short, tattooed woman buried in layers of coats and scarves, she takes the Temptations' "Cloud Nine" and whittles an edge on it, in the same way that Nina Simone used to put spines and razors all over a torch song.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown also serves as a memorial to James Jamerson, described with some justice as "the greatest bass player of all time." We hear of his eccentricities during a road trip; of his phenomenal rhythms on songs from "Bernadette" to "Dancing in the Streets"; of his having once told his son that he was inspired to a particular bass run by watching the motion of a big woman's rump as she sashayed down the sidewalk. At last, we learn how Jamerson created the bass line for Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" while lying on his back, being too drunk to sit up. Aye, and how many millions have ended up on their backs after hearing Gaye sing and Jamerson play?

One shot says it all: one of the Funk Brothers is seated at a grand piano; the camera pulls back; and we see he's making his money in a luxury hotel lobby. These musicians never were stars. Motown itself pulled out of Detroit and headed for Los Angeles in the early 1970s, giving the Funk Brothers less than two weeks' notice. Thankfully, most of these unforgettable but unknown musicians are still alive to be honored for their superlative contribution to popular music. Do not miss this splendid documentary about the session men who made Berry Gordy a rich man and the world a better place.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown (PG; 116 min.), a documentary by Paul Justman, opens Friday at Camera 7 in Campbell.

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From the November 21-27, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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