How Sweet It (Still) Is

In Gerri Hershey's classic overview of American R&B, Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music, Isaac Hayes is quoted as saying, “Now, it was the standard joke with blacks that whites could not, cannot clap on a backbeat. You know—ain't got the rhythm? What Motown did was very smart. They beat the kids over the head with it. That wasn't soulful to us down at Stax, but baby, it sold.” Volumes of myths, disses and cultural anxieties are packed into that single statement—the limited definition of soulfulness, subtle commentary on the simultaneous dilution and caricature of black art (and blackness, period) that has historically been necessary for white folk to “get it,” the role of commerce in shaping Negro creativity. In the end, Hayes is merely summing up a sentiment once shared by a lot of rock critics, as well as by many black folk, musicians and music lovers: Motown had no soul, the music was too contrived and too driven by the chase for white dollars; it wasn't the real shit. What Berry Gordy dubbed “the sound of young America” was a mixture of formidable bass, crushing beats and cash registers ringing. It was also held in suspicion—and often contempt—by folk who wanted their nigra music raw, or who (with some justification) wondered about the hidden costs of crossover dreams.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a documentary on the men who made up Motown's house band, the Funk Brothers, is an exhilarating rebuttal to the music's detractors. The near giddiness with which seasoned, no-bullshit musicians, producers and songwriters (Don Was, Me'Shell Ndegocello, Brian Holland, among many others) analyze and pay tribute to the music and its creators is contagious; their joy as both fans and students leaps off the screen. Based on the book by Allan “Dr. Licks” Slutsky and briskly directed by Paul Justman, the documentary is both exuberant and exhaustive, seamlessly jumping back and forth between live performances, dramatic re-enactments and talking heads, then accented with old photos and crinkled home movies. The film's thread—its homage to the men and their art—strings together minibiographies on such legendary, often tragic Motown figures as bassist James Jamerson and drummer Benny “Papa Zita” Benjamin, both now deceased. These men and their fellow musicians were topnotch jazzmen, well-versed in the blues, gospel and classical music. Their compositions, while often deceptively simple, were expansive and visionary and frequently fueled by personal demons.

The film's title is a play on the old Four Tops hit “Standing in the Shadows of Love” and could just as easily be subtitled with the second line in the song's chorus: “gettin' ready for the heartache to come.” Tales of depression, emotional illness, and the frustrations of glory earned but not shared loop and repeat from one musician to another. Elderly but feisty keyboardist Joe Hunter is filmed sitting on his front porch in Detroit, asking, “Will anyone ever know who we are or what we did?” That a band of musicians who played on more No. 1 hits than Elvis, the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones combined should even have to pose the question is painful—and shameful—but in keeping with the way art works in America. What's most remarkable is the way in which the film digs into these still-bleeding wounds while maintaining its celebratory air. In part, that's due to the vibrant concert and rehearsal performances of Motown standards by the likes of Joan Osbourne (who does a surprisingly credible version of Jimmy Ruffin's “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”), Gerald Levert (a rousing take on the Four Tops' “Reach Out, I'll Be There”) and a suitably silly Bootsy Collins (offering up the Capitols' “Cool Jerk” and the Contours' “Do You Love Me?”). All are backed by the surviving Funk Brothers, who turn in incredibly vigorous performances.

But the film's energy is primarily due to the rich storytelling skills of the musicians, who trot out anecdotes and memories filled with humor and wry philosophizing. And then there's the son of James Jamerson, who, when illustrating the inspiration behind his father's bass playing, offers a tale that his father once shared with him, of watching a fat woman's ass as she walked down the street. “He put music to just about anything that had life to it,” he says with a a proud chuckle.

At one point in Shadows, Inland Empire musician Ben Harper says that Motown was “America's introduction to soul music.” While purists might quibble with that assessment, what really gives pause in the statement is its premise, that “America” was white folk and that music-making Negroes were something else. Early in the film, director Justman provides a brief refresher course on the ways in which race in/and popular music had functioned prior to Motown, how Negro originators watched in vain as their white counterparts reaped the glory of their styles and innovations. Using as his work model the very same car-factory assembly lines that had drawn thousands of black folk to an economically booming Detroit after World War II, Berry Gordy set out to not only “introduce soul music to America” (and get paid for doing it), but also broaden the definitions of America, soul music and blackness. The Funk Brothers were his take-no-prisoners assault force.


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