Grand Funk Railroad

New doc finally gives Motown's under-appreciated backup players their due

directed by Paul Justman, produced by
Justman, Sandford Passman and Alan
Slutsky, narration written by Walter Dallas
and Ntozake Shange, with Jack Ashford,
Bob Babbitt, Johnny Griffith, Joe Hunter,
Uriel Jones, Richard Allen, Joe Messina
and Eddie Willis. A Seville Pictures
release. 108 minutes. Opens Friday
(November 22). For venues and times,
see First-Run Movies, page 101. Rating:

the funk brothers, motown’s session musicians, are the last great untold story of the 60s.Bassist Alan Slutsky figured this out while creating a book of transcriptions of the bass-playing of James Jamerson, the chief bass player on Motown recordings, and upon meeting Jamerson’s widow.

Thus began a decade-long odyssey with video director Paul Justman that ended here in the Intercontinental Hotel during the Toronto International Film Festival. Slutsky was promoting Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, a film that, according to him, took more than a thousand meetings and pitches before anyone would finance it.

“We couldn’t figure out what we were doing wrong,” remembers Justman. “We couldn’t convince people that these guys” — he gestures to the musicians — “were the story. They didn’t get it.”

Somehow, my interview room has become the break room for Standing In The Shadows, so during a festival where I’m relentlessly complaining that the interview slots are way too short, I’m getting an hour and change with, variously, Justman, Slutsky and three of the Funk Brothers — pianist Joe Hunter, bassist Bob Babbitt and percussionist Jack Ashford.

That would be the rocking piano intro to Heat Wave, the great bass solo on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On, and the tambourine on, well, everything. If the concept of a great tambourine player seems odd — the tambourine in rock usually works to let singers feel like real musicians — go back to the old Motown singles like Can’t Hurry Love and try to imagine the Motown sound without it.

Having them all in one place is great but creates an impossible situation. They digress over who was drunk at a session in 67 — Benny Benjamin, the original Motown drummer, and Jamerson were both guilty on occasion — amid memories of Motown founder Berry Gordy.

Hunter, now 75, recalls working with Martha Reeves before she was at Motown. “She had a great voice but no idea of what to do with it. I had to teach her how to sing.”

He laughs at the legend of how she arrived at Motown. “”Mr. Gordy discovered me at a talent show,’ she was supposed to have said. He did not. I should mention, though, that I got a very nice cheque from Mr. Gordy for bringing her to the label.”

The film is structured oddly, with documentary footage of the Funk Brothers being reunited in Motown’s old Detroit studios, dramatic recreations of stories, and new concert footage featuring the Brothers backing an assortment of non-Motown singers like Joan Osborne, who is a revelation, and Ben Harper, who is not.

Harper has the Funk Brothers backing him and can’t find the beat in I Heard It Through The Grapevine. For each performance by Gerald LeVert channelling the spirit of Levi Stubbs in Reach Out, there’s one by Me’shell NdegéOcello, who could be sung into the ground by at least three of the backup singers.

One question that’s never raised in the movie is why, 30 years after Motown’s departure from Detroit, no one wants to know about the Funk Brothers’ current endeavours, though Hunter is still active in the jazz club scene in Detroit and Babbitt is a session musician in Nashville.

“When I moved to Nashville,” says Babbitt, “I was out with another local studio guy, and he was amazed that I’d played on those records. Until What’s Goin’ On, Motown had never listed the musicians who played on the records. I think most people thought they happened by magic.”

Not any more. It’s coming late, and many of them are gone, but the Funk Brothers are finally getting a taste of the fame they deserved 35 years ago.

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