Loading...

How Sweet It (Still) Is 

Standing in the Shadows of Motown and Pleasure and Pain

Wednesday, Nov 13 2002
Comments

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's 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 Ndegéocello, 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.

Related Stories

  • Our Water Obsession

    "Either you bring the water to L.A. or you bring L.A. to the water." - Chinatown Countless documentaries are released into theaters every year, the majority of which are info dumps that take the talking-head structure as a given. There's rarely much thought given to form, which is sometimes fine - not every...
  • The Best Acts at Coachella Weren't Even on the Bill

    Nate Jackson GZA destroying bros with his lyrics at the Heineken House Special guests at Coachella are commonplace at this point. It's just something you expect when you set foot on the Polo Fields. But on Saturday night things went to another level; it was a fantastic evening due to...
  • Paint-Out & Sculpt-Out

    @ The Autry
  • Becoming a Member of Lucent Dossier Is Not Easy

    Chris Victorio Jordan Wentz doing the splits, handling fire...just another day on the job. This year, Lucent Dossier celebrates its 10th anniversary at Coachella. Honestly, we couldn't imagine a festival season without them. For the uninitiated, this traveling tribe of dancers, aerialists, acrobats, clowns and carnival freaks are the heart...
  • Drugs and Bands Pairings 3

    Timothy Norris By Adam Lovinus Ever since sunshine acid saturated Woodstock back in 1969, music festivals and recreational pharmaceuticals have gone together. While we applaud those using Coachella as an opportunity to get sober, it's not for everyone, which is why below, we've recommended a fine list of musical acts and drugs...

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 chuckles proudly.

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 broaden the definitions of America, soul music and blackness. The Funk Brothers were his take-no-prisoners assault force.

AT THE CENTER OF HIS OWN HAGIOGRAPHIC documentary, Pleasure and Pain, co-directed by Sam Lee and music photographer Danny Clinch, is Ben Harper, whose relationship to music, race and representation -- and how they float around one another -- takes a back seat to the cinematic fellatio bestowed upon the singer-songwriter-musician. Those already enmeshed in the cult of Harper will be thrilled by this behind-the-scenes, on-the-road glimpse at their hero. Others may welcome exposure to his music but find the film -- and Harper -- a bit tedious.

As he makes it clear, repeatedly, that he's not interested in labels or being boxed in -- that he wants to transcend the reflex toward categorization that most folk exercise when discussing music -- a chorus of fans, band members and managers swoons for the camera: Ben doesn't recognize genre, he's too talented to limit himself that way; he's a pure artist; he's a throwback to the golden days of popular music; he doesn't want to be limited. Harper himself is cool, calm and mostly genial throughout, except for a fantastic sequence that has him eviscerating hackneyed music reporters, almost reducing one of them to tears. That verbal bloodbath is a performance, of course, but it's a performance whose testy shading comes as a relief from the otherwise fawning portrait.

Harper has an amazing voice, one that echoes without cheap mimicry the various influences that he's pulled together into his aesthetic arsenal -- Dylan, Marley, Richie Havens and a host of salty bluesmen. He can veer from pure falsetto to a wizened, affecting croon with fluttery ease. Even more impressively, he's a master guitarist whose skills dwarf those of his flashier label-mate Lenny Kravitz. Both Harper's musicianship and his singing shine most brightly in the film during a moving concert duet with his mother.

Still, it's Harper's determination to define himself while sidestepping cliché that dominates the film. He says forcefully, "I don't wanna have to be a protest singer, I don't wanna have to be a crooner, I don't wanna have to be a rocker . . . I'm not an activist, I'm not a role model." The thing is, he is all of the above. Rather than have him define himself through a process of denial, it would have been more interesting for his directors to have examined and discussed those roles in relation to one another (or, better yet, have a non-sycophantic speaker do so), thereby arriving at wholeness through synthesis or contrast rather than by way of sheer negation. Instead, this man, whose music can be so beautifully transcendent, in striving to prove how unique and idiosyncratic he is, slips rather easily into participating in a by-the-numbers rock-star documentary, flattening out his persona and surprising us with how familiar a figure he is after all.

STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN Directed by PAUL JUSTMAN | Written by ALLAN SLUTSKY; narration by WALTER DALLAS and NTOZAKE SHANGE | Produced by SANDY PASSMAN, SLUTSKY and JUSTMAN | Released by Artisan | At Magic Johnson Theaters, Regent Showcase, Laemmle's Playhouse 7

Related Content

Now Showing

  1. Wed 16
  2. Thu 17
  3. Fri 18
  4. Sat 19
  5. Sun 20
  6. Mon 21
  7. Tue 22

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!

Slideshows

  • Nicolas Cage's 10 Best Movie Roles
    As video-on-demand continues to become the preferred route of distribution for a certain kind of independent film, much is being made of Nicolas Cage's willingness to slum for a paycheck, with recent examples including already-forgotten, small-screen-friendly items like Seeking Justice, Trespass, Stolen, and The Frozen Ground. (His character names in these projects -- Will Gerard, Kyle Miller, Will Montgomery, and Jack Halcombe -- are as interchangeable as the titles of the films.) Aside from citing the obvious appeal of doing work for money (a defense Cage himself brought up in a recent interview with The Guardian), it's also possible to back Cage by acknowledging the consistency with which he's taken on "serious" roles over the years.

    David Gordon Green's Joe, which hits limited release this weekend (more details on that here), marks the latest instance of this trend, with Cage giving a reportedly subdued performance as an ex-con named Joe Ransom. In that spirit, we've put together a rundown of some of the actor's finest performances, all of which serve as proof that, though his over-the-top inclinations may make for a side-splitting YouTube compilation, Cage has amassed a career that few contemporary actors can equal. This list is hardly airtight in its exclusivity, so a few honorable mentions ought to go out to a pair of Cage's deliriously uneven auteur collaborations (David Lynch's Wild at Heart, Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes), 1983's Valley Girl, 1987's Moonstruck, and Alex Proyas's Knowing (a favorite of the late Roger Ebert).

    --Danny King
  • Ten Enduring Conspiracy Thrillers
    With the approaching release this week of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, many critics, including L.A. Weekly’s own Amy Nicholson, have noted the film’s similarities (starting with the obvious: Robert Redford) to the string of conspiracy thrillers that dominated American cinema during the 1970s. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of ten of the most enduring entries in the genre -- most of them coming from the ‘70s, but with a few early-‘80s holdouts added in for good measure. This is by no means an exclusive list, and more recent films like Roger Donaldson’s No Way Out (1987), Jacques Rivette’s Secret Defense (1998), Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State (1998), Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005), and Redford’s own The Company You Keep (2012) speak to how well the genre has sustained itself over time. Words by Danny King.
  • Behind the Scenes of Muppets Most Wanted
    "The endurance of the Muppets isn't just the result of the creative skills of Henson and collaborators like Frank Oz, or of smart business decisions, or of sheer dumb luck," writes this paper's film critic Stephanie Zacharek in her review of Muppets Most Wanted. "It's simply that the Muppets are just ever so slightly, or maybe even totally, mad. Man, woman, child: Who can resist them? Even TV-watching cats are drawn to their frisky hippety-hopping and flutey, gravely, squeaky, squawky voices." Go behind the scenes with the hippety-hopping Muppets with these images.

    Read our full Muppets Most Wanted movie review.

Now Trending