Standing in the Shadows of Motown
Is the 1967 version of ”Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell fusing their voices to scale the peak of devotion, the greatest love song ever recorded? It can feel that way when you’re listening to it, and you could say the same about a lot of other Motown hits; they have a majestic sweetness. Early on in Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Paul Justman’s joyful documentary look at the Funk Brothers, the dozen or so session musicians who played the instruments on nearly every Motown song, the drummer Steve Jordan makes what seems, on its face, like an outrageous assertion about the music that emerged from the ”Hitsville, U.S.A.” factory from 1959 to 1971. ”You could have had Deputy Dawg singing on some of this stuff and had a hit,” he says. ”Because the tracks were just so incredible. They were musical entities unto themselves.”
True, Marvin Gaye wasn’t exactly the Deputy Dawg of Detroit songbirds; nor was Smokey Robinson or Diana Ross or the Four Tops. That said, ”Standing in the Shadows of Motown” opens your ears in a way that few musical documentaries have attempted. More than an overdue celebration of the Funk Brothers, it’s a revelatory aural journey that gets you to hear something you’ve always known without quite realizing it: that the magic of the Motown sound was, quite literally, its sound, which the Funk Brothers created.
In one marvelous sequence, a half dozen of these supremely relaxed men, all in their 60s and 70s, sit down to play ”Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” adding the instruments one by one. Uriel Jones lays down the bursting yet paradoxically delicate drumbeat, and when Bob Babbitt comes in with his walking bass, the song already sounds larger than its parts. Eddie Willis’ staccato, off-the-beat guitar strums — pause, plank! pause, plank! — add color in the form of rhythm, and by the time they’ve been topped by the exultant spangle of Jack Ashford’s tambourine, you realize why, in a sense, any singer could have succeeded atop this sublime chassis. More than just great musicians, the Funk Brothers treated each and every instrument as a voice, blending them to create a unique sense of space — not a wall of sound but a gorgeously harmonic globe of sound.
”Standing in the Shadows of Motown” offers terrific interviews with the surviving Funk Brothers, who provide a tasty insider history of 4 a.m. recording sessions inside ”the snake pit” (as the fabled Studio A was known) as well as a chilling description of their final kiss-off from Berry Gordy, the Motown mogul who treated them like indentured servants. The interviews are woven around a reunion concert given in Detroit in 2000, with assorted contemporary singers filling in for the Motown greats. (The showstopping highlight: Joan Osborne doing ”What Becomes of the Broken Hearted.”) The most fascinating anecdotes revolve around the man who was, by universal assent, the genius of the group — the late bassist James Jamerson, who caressed his low notes into an angel’s ostinato, so that he seemed to be wandering through, and creating, every dimension of a song. No studio musician ever cast a greater shadow.