How Sweet It (Still) Is
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.
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
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.