Documentary tribute to history's most unheralded backing band
DIRECTED BY Paul Justman
STARRING The Funk Brothers, Joan Osborne, Bootsy Collins, Chaka Khan
Opens July 25, Cert PG, 108 mins
Detroit, 1959, and Berry Gordy gathers the best musicians from the city’s jazz and blues circuit and sets them to work as the house band on his fledgling Motown label. Holed up in the garage at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, these guys put the backbeat into Hitsville USA and, during Motown’s golden age, play on more hit records than The Rolling Stones, Elvis and The Beatles combined. Some feat, but The Funk Brothers are soul music’s unsung heroes?and director Paul Justman’s fabulous documentary attempts to recover their legacy.
Inspired by producer and music supervisor Allan Sluksky’s 1989 biography of The Funk Brothers’ late bassist James Jamerson, Justman’s doc is shot at the Detroit after-hours club where the band developed an inimitable sound, playing gigs to supplement their pitiful Motown wage. We get the history of the group from surviving members: keyboard player Joe Hunter, drummer Uriel Jones and bassist Bob Babbitt?sly old coots to a man, full of self-deprecating humour, whose anecdotes about Smokey, Marvin, Diana and Stevie are the stuff of pure gold. But the film has many wistful, not to mention downright sad, moments. One of the most striking comes during a series of vox pops with shoppers in a Detroit collector’s record store. Each is asked to identify the musicians who played on every great Motown smash. No one knows the answer.
Intercut with these reminiscences we get some great footage of the chaps?some of it archival, some of it contemporary with the Brothers jamming with Chaka Khan, Boosty Collins, Ben Harper and Joan Osborne. Even now, reformed after 30 years, they’ve got the funk in spades.
Justman carefully deconstructs the fantasy image perpetrated by Berry Gordy and the Motown family. The fulcrum of The Funk Brothers?the late great drummer Benny Benjamin and James Jamerson?went largely under-acknowledged during their lifetimes. Benjamin died a lonely death in 1968 and, damningly, Jamerson only got to attend the Motown 25th anniversary concert in 1983 after buying a ticket from a tout. He died a few weeks later. This film suffers for their absence, and the grainy re-enactments Justman stages seem superfluous.
That aside, this is the best kind of documentary?a salutary history lesson told with care and affection.