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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Standing In The Shadows of Motown: What Is Soul?

Last night I pulled out the DVD of Standing In The Shadows of Motown, Alan Slutsky's adoring documentary on the Funk Brothers and the more quotidian aspect of the Motown dream. It's been several years since I last watched it, and I appreciated it--the film and the story--even more this time around.

Standing In The Shadows is on the surface a documentary in the accepted sense, filled with nostalgic, emotional interviews, the dramatic re-creation of events, and concert footage that brings it all home. But like many a labor of love it's more a document of hope and evanescence—a wish for what once was.

The film ultimately functions as an atonement of sorts. It’s a codified chip on the shoulder, calling for the world to sit up and give props to this tremendous group of musicians that actually made the records we still love so much, The Funk Brothers.

Simply put, they were the guys in the band--the lucky and hard
working musicians that found themselves riding a cyclone, or at least making hay inside that cyclone. It's mind boggling to consider their chart success--more Billboard hits than the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys and Elvis together!

I remembered that Standing In The Shadows was released on the same weekend as Eminem's 8 Mile. There's no small irony when a film about a group of predominantly black musicians who didn't get their due for 40 years arrives at the same time as a hugely popular Hollywood vehicle for a white musician working quite well in a black idiom. The beat goes on, a cynic would say. But a cynic would not stay cynical with the information that the passing of time has given us--revealing Eminem to be a genius and Standing In The Shadows to be a classic documentary. It worked out well for all concerned.

Director Paul Justman and writer/conceptualist Alan Slutsky keep it focused and don't attempt to reduce
the Motown mythology down to size or place it in less romantic terms. But it's very real and workmanlike: Make no mistake that they were Detroit guys workin’ for a living, playing jazz in clubs ‘til the wee hours, taking road gigs with whomever, while at the same time musically informing the inchoate writing of the Beatles & Stones with their recorded performances (and everyone else as well).

But their story only screws you into your seat when they’re presented as soul musicians, playing soul music in Detroit, on the songs that have become as familiar as old shoes to us around here.

The film tries to get at this question...and it's a slippery thing. What is soul? And it even inspires an answer: As an attributed quality to a
friend or someone we admire, it's a spirit that's the product of having lived. It's the result of having said the right and wrong thing at the wrong and right time, of having loved too hard, too long, too often. It's knowing the absurdity of love and still loving. It's faith when cynicism is easier. It's hangin’ in there and showing up and making sure your shoes match. Soul is, as Al Green says, "fearing no evil." Maybe that describes it best...soul is guts.

Soul is also a quality of heart, especially after you know all there is to fear. When set against our inevitable outcome and the scope of the universe, there's an inherent helplessness to mankind. Music either distracts us from this harsh reality or softens its lack of choices, or maybe both. Soul music actually says it's gonna be all right. Solomon Burke dreamed of writing a soul song that, if sung by every man and woman, would save the world. Well, Motown didn't save the world. But it changed it, forever, and for the better.

As a musical genre, soul is a little easier to get at. In fact it seems that if a producer were to take the concrete elements of a Motown record, he could easily reproduce it: It starts with a loose-but-tight groove, a tambourine, then a piano played like a rhythm guitar, a swirling Hammond organ, four on the floor kick-snare drum pattern, percolating guitar slides with quarter note "chinks", unbelievably playful bass lines, counterpoint horn arrangements that are never too much and never too little, sweeping strings and soaring voices. There ya have it. Thank God for those Bruce Willis records in the 80s and the recent splash of new "old school" soul records, which proved once and for all that it ain't that cookie cutter easy.

Soul music remains
dependent on that mysterious quality of heart we discussed a paragraph ago, a quality consistently captured in the movie. But the point is that these guys were so far inside the dream that the dream was untrue, or unreal, for them. To tear the mythology down would be to simply say what's always been and is still true for musicians--they didn't get paid enough. Money or attention.

So, as always, we let the music do the talking. The concert footage still holds up well, particularly Joan Osborne's passionate take on of Jimmy Ruffin's "What Becomes Of A Broken Heart?." Ben Harper has never been my cup of tea, and he comes off in the film as too soft, somewhat uncommitted to the music, and not really a soul singer.

Standing In The Shadows
lets Berry Gordy a bit off the hook if you're in the camp that says it's not fair that
the Funk Brothers didn't get more props or bread, or that James Jamerson, the genius bassist that defined pop-soul bass playing, had to scalp a ticket to sit in the balcony at the Motown 25 party. But if you understand that this is a star-based business in a celebrity-driven world, you reluctantly accept that these musicians are getting far more recognition than most and never as much as they deserve. Such is life.

It's no secret that black (and white) musicians and innovators have
been ripped off in more ways than one. What makes this issue complicated is that Motown was, of course, the paradigm of black owned business. The film can't quite reconcile all this; in fact Justman and Slutsky don't really try. They just try and make it right, right now, in the movie.

The film's slight faults are more glaring with time. Standing In The Shadows is a little light on Holland-Dozier-Holland, Smokey Robinson and Norman Whitfield, the songwriters that wrote the bulk of this tremendously joyful music. It does try and include the arrangers in the Motown diaspora, but ultimately it's strictly about the guys that were shoulder to shoulder and ear to ear in the snake pit, the double edged moniker for the studio on West Grand Blvd.

Standing In The Shadows accomplished a lot. Now we all know their
names--Jack Ashford, Bo White, Joe Messina, Joe Hunter, Benny Benjamin, Johnny Griffith, Uriel Jones, Eddie Willis, Bob Babbitt, Jamerson, Pete Allen, Johnny Trudell, among others. Those of us making music around here already knew their names, and we continually honor them every time we play, sing, or write a note. It's a debt that can't truly be repaid, but it sure looks like you die tryin'.

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