Where did the love go? According to the eager-to-please documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” when Berry Gordy moved his company to Los Angeles the love remained in Detroit. Three decades after the music entrepreneur split Motortown, the love continues to tenderly envelop the studio musicians who call themselves the Funk Brothers and whom Gordy unceremoniously left behind.
Musicians like Joe Hunter, a keyboardist who joined Motown at its launch. Seen playing piano in a Michigan bar, a tip jar roosting on the instrument’s glossy surface, Hunter quickly plumbs the depths of the Funk Brothers’ heartbreak story in a few words: “When the dust cleared, it was all over and we realized that we were being left out of the dream.”
Hunter is vague about the shape of that dream and whether he means his hopes or Gordy’s ambitions remains unexplained. What we do learn from this cautiously worded film is that at the close of the 1950s -- what narrator Andre Braugher calls the “days of American innocence” -- a pool of talented jazz and R&B; men began playing for Motown, furnishing the studio’s heart and backbeat. The producer had been searching for a way to break out of the confines of “race music” and into the rock ‘n’ roll mainstream, and with the Motown sound he succeeded, spectacularly. His multiracial lineup, culled from every smoky club corner in Detroit and beyond, spent hours, days and finally years shut up in the company’s small recording studio (nicknamed “the snakepit”), churning out hits that white and black kids would take into their boomer twilight.
Through the 1960s and into the early 1970s, Motown stars were born and created, launched on the bass lines and guitar licks put down by the Funk Brothers. The hits crowded the Billboard charts (the company’s nickname was “Hitsville, U.S.A.”) and the Supremes landed on Ed Sullivan -- but back in the snakepit, the Funk Brothers were earning $10 a song. You wouldn’t know it from the documentary, but it wasn’t necessarily easy or lucrative for the name-brand talent pouring their souls and dreams into the microphones, either. In her autobiography, “Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme,” Mary Wilson revealed that the smash girl group was paid a 3% royalty rate that had to be divided among the singers, estimating that a million-selling single would have personally earned her all of about $5,000.
Gordy maintained a famously tight hold over his talent. He kept the musicians under exclusive contract, demanding that they not play for anyone else. They in turn ignored Gordy’s edict and secretly played for whoever would pay, occasionally touring the country and even England. The music industry is notoriously exploitative, but Motown seemed in a class of its own: The studio actually paid some of the Funk Brothers to spy on one another (they pocketed the money and laughed); the overworked musicians, meanwhile, took to hiding from the boss in a nearby funeral parlor. Even as the rest of the industry began listing studio musicians’ names on album covers, these brothers remained invisible men.
“Standing in the Shadows of Motown” gives the Funk Brothers their due and more, mostly through wonderfully juicy anecdotes. The film, which takes its name and inspiration from co-producer Allan Slutsky’s 1989 book about bassist James Jamerson, is a blast into the past, but as with many nostalgic trips it’s also shrouded in mist. The awkward, almost embarrassed way in which director Paul Justman, as well as writers Walter Dallas and Ntozake Shange, deal with race is unfortunate, as is the tendency toward overstatement. Early on, Steve Jordan, who arranged two numbers Bootsy Collins sings in the film, says of the Motown hits, “anybody could have sung them. You could have had Deputy Dawg singing some of the stuff.” You understand the sentiment, but as the majority of the contemporary renditions produced specifically for the documentary makes clear (even Collins’), it’s also untrue.
Collins slides into the groove of his two numbers (the shocking pink ostrich hat helps), as do Gerald Levert and Meshell Ndegeocello, who eases into “Cloud Nine” as if she’d been born there. And while Joan Osborne’s version of “Heat Wave” shows off her throaty vocals, her Janis Joplin-esque rendition of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” is at odds with the sort of confluence at which Motown excelled, in which vocals and instruments were equal partners. Osborne at least seems eager to prove her chops to the Funk Brothers, who accompany all the singers, but not so Ben Harper, whose version of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” lacks the Temptations’ silky insinuation. It isn’t only that he doesn’t come across as a man who would ask (much less beg) a woman to stay with him, it’s that his vibe is wrong.
Nothing, however, gets at the singularity of the Motown sound than the film’s closing number, which brings together Montell Jordan and Chaka Khan for a duet of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece “What’s Going On,” the title song from one of the first Motown albums to carry the studio musicians’ names. Seated on a stage, with the Funk Brothers bobbing around them, Jordan and Kahn, who seems to have dropped in from another planet, croon Gaye’s anguished, politically charged lyrics without an ounce of soul, passion or conviction.
It’s a disappointing finish to this entertaining but glib documentary and nearly as surreal as the blessing that Gordy has bequeathed on the film and its subjects.
He claims to be thrilled to see the Funk Brothers receive their “long overdue recognition.” Better late than never.
‘Standing in the Shadows of Motown’
MPAA rating: PG, for language and thematic elements.
Times guidelines: The film is no more suggestive than a classic Motown hit.
Artisan Entertainment presents an Elliott Scott/Rimshot Production of a Paul Justman Film, released by Artisan Entertainment. Director Paul Justman. Producers Sandy Passman, Allan Slutsky and Paul Justman. Music supervisor Allan Slutsky. Directors of photography Doug Milsome and Lon Stratton. Editor Anne Erikson. Narration written by Walter Dallas and Ntozake Shange. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.
In limited release.