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The backups, up front

It took 11 years to get made, but a documentary finally puts the spotlight on the Funk Brothers, unheralded players who helped define the Motown sound.

November 03, 2002|Emory Holmes II | Special to The Times

The Motown story has been told in many ways, usually from the point of view of one of the label's stars, such as Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder or Smokey Robinson. But the upcoming documentary "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" extends the spotlight to the background players -- namely, the skilled collective of Detroit musicians known as the Funk Brothers.

These background musicians were like mentoring, elder brothers to Motown's inexperienced roster of stars during the 1960s, and their simplified, jazz- and blues-informed licks provided the sonic pulse for the distinctive Motor City sound that Berry Gordy Jr. and his young label mates were then concocting, as Gordy later famously quipped, from "a combination of rats, roaches, soul, guts and love."

Loosely based on Allan Slutsky's heralded 1989 book "Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson," the film is directed by Paul Justman ("Let the Good Times Roll") and is produced by Justman, Slutsky and L.A. trial and entertainment lawyer Sandy Passman. After his book won the Rolling Stone/Ralph J. Gleason Award for music book of the year, Slutsky -- a studio musician known as "Dr. Licks" -- thought of adapting his story, then confined to Jamerson, Motown's brilliant bassist.

"I knew I had found the last unmined, unexplored totally virgin story of rock 'n' roll from the '60s," Slutsky recalled by phone recently from his Philadelphia home. "When you ask most people, 'What's the Motown story?,' they say The Temptations or Diana Ross, but being a musician I'm a little twisted. To me it's the story of an incredible studio band with a bunch of revolving vocalists."

Trained in jazz, the Funk Brothers established a link between the swinging complexities of jazz and the streamlined urban rhythms of Motor City pop. Each of the Funk Brothers had a special skill.

Jack Ashford, for example, played jazz tambourine. In 1962, Ashford recalled recently, "we were dying in this club up in Boston, playing 'Take 5' by Dave Brubeck, and I was on vibes. And Charles Harris, the bandleader, hands me a tambourine. I said, 'What am I gonna do with this thing?' He said, 'Play it.' I picked it up and it took on a life of its own. People started piling in the club to hear [me] playing jazz tambourine."

One of those who heard him was Marvin Gaye, who in 1963 brought Ashford to Motown, where he was asked to concentrate exclusively on the tambourine, "because it added another dimension to music and rhythmically it locked it together."

"Berry had simple chord changes, you know," Funk Brothers keyboardist Joe White said, describing a typical Motown recording session. "He would hum his melodies and we would put what we thought went with it."

Justman wanted the film to "break the idea that this music was done like an assembly line." He wanted audiences to see the Funk Brothers as "the hippest guys in the world. I wanted the viewer to think of them as young, even though most of the time you are seeing an older guy speak. I created reenactments to give you some vision of what they were like: young, hip, funny and together."

Others did not share that vision -- and so began Slutsky and Justman's 11-year struggle to get "Standing in the Shadows" made. The Artisan film opens in Los Angeles on Nov. 15.

"I pounded the pavement for a year and a half and just got blank faces. They just didn't get it." Slutsky recalled. "Instead of letting the anger eat me up," Slutsky added, he used his bitter diet of rejection as a motivational tool. In those lean years, Slutsky relied on the support of two college roommates who believed in the project. "My two college friends Steve Brown and Richard Adler said, 'Don't give up. It's going to happen.' They told me that for 11 years."

At the urging of producer Janis Ginsberg, a mutual acquaintance of Slutsky and Justman, Slutsky saw "Let the Good Times Roll," Justman's 1991 documentary on the music of New Orleans, and gave the director a call. As Justman recalls, "Allan asked me if I would like to do the film and said, 'It's about this group in Motown,' and I said, 'Allan I've read your book. I love the book. I would love to do this movie. All of my whole career leads up to this movie.' "

Justman uses rare images of Motown sessions and tours, as well as period photographs of the Detroit cityscape, and the joints and clubs where the guys hung out.

The Funk Brothers' lives and artistry are explored in first-person accounts from family members and musicians who lived the story alongside them. Each vignette is punctuated by a familiar Motown hit. Recorded in December 2000 at a Detroit concert, the songs feature the Funk Brother who helped create them backing up such contemporary vocalists as Ben Harper, Meshell Ndegeocello, Chaka Khan and others. That concert provides the film's emotional anchor.

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