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The backups, up front

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.”

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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.”

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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.

Explained Justman: “I felt it was important to establish right from the start that I’m not making a movie about the politics of music, I’m not making a movie about the economics of music, I’m making a movie about the joy of music because that’s how these guys began.”

Suddenly, time is of the essence

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Before their focus widened to include all the Funk Brothers, they had pitched a $20-million feature film, Slutsky says, “with Cuba Gooding Jr. in the role of James Jamerson, but we never got any takers.” “We talked on the phone every night for 10 years,” says Justman, an L.A. resident. “We pitched this film hundreds of times. We went everywhere.”

When one of the Funk Brothers, Robert White, died in 1994, Justman became nervous that the window for making a documentary about the backup group was closing. So Justman told Slutsky, “ ‘Look, I’m going to take my little video camera and I’m going to go up to Detroit and I’m going to start making this movie in the way that I can do it.’ It was just going to be me and Allan and the Funk Brothers.” Slutsky urged Justman to wait -- something was bound to happen.

And it did. By happenstance, another Justman projects was being represented by a management firm headed by attorney Passman, and following a luncheon chat, Passman asked him if he had any additional projects of note. “I started telling him the story of the Funk Brothers,” Justman recalls, “and tears started coming down his face. I knew right then he was the right guy to co-produce. He was able to maneuver in the business world and help us secure the [licensing] of the Motown songs as well as the artists” in the live concert.

As Passman tells it, his luck was only slightly better than his co-producers. “Allan and Paul had been rejected for nine years before I got involved. I expected to get into more rooms than they did, which I did. But people in this town who didn’t know how to wrap themselves around the truth didn’t have the courage to lie to us, so what they did was worse -- they stalled us. But as I proceeded to forge my way through that, I never believed for a second that we would not prevail.”

Around that time, Slutsky experienced what he characterizes as his “horrible miracle.” His college friend Steve died in Philadelphia. Richard, the other roommate, was in L.A. on business at the time and flew back to the East Coast for the funeral in March 2000. Slutsky picks up the story: “On the flight back, he sits next to this guy and they strike up a conversation. They find out they are both musicians and the guy says he’s a bass player. And [Richard] says, “Oh, my friend wrote a famous book on bass players called ‘Standing in the Shadows of Motown’ and the guy says, ‘You mean Slutsky?’ ”

That guy turned out to be Paul Elliot, who had just sold his fiber optic company. “Doing a film was the furthest thing from my mind,” Elliot said. “But I had heard, kind of through the Internet grapevine, that Allan had been trying to turn [his book] into a film, but that was years before and I had kind of forgotten about it.

“I finally gave Richard my business card and told him to have Allan give me a call.” Elliot called his business partner, David Scott, and he said, “ ‘Yeah I’d like to get in on that.’ It’s just a pretty spectacular set of coincidences that brought David and me into this.”

The movie -- Entertainment Weekly deemed it “jubilant” when it screened at the Toronto Film Festival -- was filmed on location in Detroit in December 2001 for $3 million. “That figure is deceiving though,” Passman says. “Keep in mind that we not only made a movie, we also put on a concert and produced a record.”

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Slutsky took the project very personally: “I really couldn’t live with myself if I had not been able to deliver because I had schlepped the guys around and raised [their expectations]....They’d said, ‘Well, we’re backup musicians; our role is to look at the singer’s butt and to watch him get applause. And for 16 years I schlepped them around saying, ‘You’re a star. You deserve to be celebrated -- you deserve to have people giving you standing ovations.’ ”

About the recognition that the film may bring them, Funk Brother Jack Ashford said, “We haven’t gotten used to it yet. This is just like a dream. I’m expecting to wake up one day and it all [didn’t] happen.”

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Musicians who helped rev up Motor City

Bass

Bob Babbitt

James “Igor” Jamerson *, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with Eric Clapton in 2000

Drums

Richard “Pistol” Allan

Benny “Papa Zita” Benjamin *

Uriel Jones

Guitar

Joe Messina

Robert White *

Eddie “Chank” Willis

Keyboards

Johnny Griffith

Joe Hunter

Earl “Chunk of Funk” Van Dyke *

Percussion

Eddie “Bongo” Brown *

Vibes and Tambourine

Jack “Black Jack” Ashford

* deceased


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