What's left to be said about the "Motown Sound," that treasure trove of pop 'n' soul music that once poured forth from Berry Gordy's tiny Detroit studio? A lot, it turns out. Vocal artists like the Supremes, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Four Tops, whose records first charted in the early 1960s, became household names. But few people...read more
What's left to be said about the "Motown Sound," that treasure trove of pop 'n' soul music that once poured forth from Berry Gordy's tiny Detroit studio? A lot, it turns out. Vocal artists like the Supremes, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and the Four Tops, whose records first charted in the early 1960s, became household names. But few people could tell you who actually played the music. The answer lies in Paul Justman's wonderfully warm tribute to Motown's Funk Brothers, a group of incredibly talented studio musicians who were at the heart of the Motown Sound, from the label's origins until its move from Detroit to Los Angeles in the early '70s. Justman uses extensive interviews with the surviving Brothers (as well as a few dramatic recreations) to tell their stories, many of which begin in the South before the promise of work in Detroit auto plants brought the musicians north. Most had roots in jazz, ensuring — as producer Don Was (one of many musos who provide context and musical background information) points out — that their music always had that swing. Even after Gordy put them to work laying down backing tracks in his Hitsville U.S.A. studio (vocal tracks were recorded separately), many of the Brothers regularly hit the city's after-hours jazz clubs and played along to the bump-and-grind of such ecdysiastical wonders as Lottie "the Body" Graves, working out risque rhythms that found their way onto Motown recordings. The names are virtually unknown, and yet the music they played is an essential part of the sound of the '60s: the galloping rhythm of "I'll Be There," the opening bars of "My Girl" (which surely contain one of the greatest guitar riffs of all time), the soaring key changes of "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted." The Brothers maintain a gentlemanly decorum throughout; mention is made of the troubles that haunted innovative bass player James Jamerson, who allegedly played the tricky bass line that drives Marvin Gaye's masterpiece "What's Going On" flat on his back and drunk as a skunk, but the dark side of the story is never really discussed. That said, the movie more than compensates for its biographical deficiencies with thrilling footage of a recent reunion concert which finds the Funk Brothers still in top form, backing the likes of Bootsy Collins, Joan Osborne and Chaka Kahn, playing their hearts out and setting the story of the Motown Sound straight.
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