Thanks to the postmodern turn of our retro-fixated culture, even teenagers today have heard of the great Tamla-Motown label. And playing on nearly every one of the 110 top ten hits coming out of Detroit between 1959 and 1972 were a loose collaboration of crack musicians called the Funk Brothers. They played on The Supremes “Baby Love”, Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, The Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” and Smokey Robinson’s “The Tears Of A Clown”. More hits, according to this film’s preamble, than the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys and Elvis combined. And having done all that for Motown and having turned its owner into a very wealthy man, the Funk Brothers were rewarded by Motown boss Berry Gordy by being fired – via a notice pinned to the studio door. What Gordy didn’t realise was that that little note was also the company’s creative death warrant. Of course Motown has had hits since. But Boyz II Men and Erykah Badu? Against the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, the Four Tops and Stevie Wonder? Pardon the snorts. Paul Justman’s fine documentary has two distinct strands – the guys, those still living anyway, remembering how it was back in the day when Motown produced music 22 hours a day and when an orchestra-sized musical unit would cram into an old garage and lay down “the sound of young America”. Then there’s the modern update, with the survivors playing a reunion concert alongside the likes of guest vocalists Montell Jordan, Chaka Khan and Meshell Ndegeocello. The singers are, you know, OK, but it’s that mighty mighty sound that this film’s about. And when the Funk Brothers kick into its opening bars and “What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted” starts boom-cha-booming at you in Dolby Surround, don’t be surprised if the hairs on your neck stand up, lay down, then start a Mexican wave to the beat.
Standing in the Shadows of Motown – at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2007