The Funk Brothers, the group of unheralded backup players who were largely responsible for creating the “Motown Sound” that dominated American popular music over much of the 1960s and 1970s, are finally getting the recognition they deserve in Paul Justman’s documentary, “Standing in the Shadows of Motown.” Two of their surviving members–percussionist Jack Ashford and keyboard artist Joe Hunter–visited Dallas with Justman recently for a screening of the picture at the Deep Ellum Film Festival.
“It took ten years to get the project funded,” Justman explained. “Allan [Slutsky, author of the book after which the picture is titled] gave me a call and asked me if I would direct this movie. And when I read the book, I felt there was a great story there, because these guys had played on the soundtrack of my life. And I didn’t know who they were. And I’m sure they played on the soundtrack of your life. And so as a director, I felt there was a movie there. I didn’t realize it was going to take ten years to raise the money for it, of course. I was doing other things, but all the time I was thinking of this movie.” Finally serendipity intervened, in the form of a chance meeting in 2000 on a plane with Paul Elliott, who agreed to help finance the picture. “It was kind of a miracle, kind of a fairy-tale come true.”
The director continued: “What makes a film a film is a great story. And we fought to make the movie on the level that we made it on. The documentary portions were shot on super-16. And I even got to shoot some re-enactments, because I wanted people in the audience to realize that these guys were the youngest, hippest guys in the world at that time….I kind of threw that in as kind of a crackerjack prize in a box–so they’d have a glimpse of the kind of joy and energy they had as kids….So while it took ten years to make, it was worth it. Plus I got to know the guys. That friendship is important–probably more important than the film.”
“Most of the things I learned about recording–99% of the things I learned about recording–was at Motown, because I had the greatest musicians in the world to learn from,” Ashford, who worked for Motown from 1963 to 1975, said. “Motown was a clearing house for talent. If you were talented, you worked. The competition was keen. And they didn’t mind you trying different things, either. Whatever you wanted to try–if it didn’t work, they’d tell you ‘I don’t want it.’ It was great. You can’t put a title or give a descriptive opinion or statement of ‘what was it like, being at Motown?’ Your wildest dreams couldn’t capture it. It was a mystical, magical time, like the yellow brick road. People describe that in song and dance, but that’s the way it was with us–it was like a yellow brick road….My life began to become new at Motown.”
When they were asked to get back together and play on stage again in connection with the movie, Hunter recalled, “It was quite an experiment. I said I don’t believe we’re going to make it– there’s been too many years. And then everybody started looking at one another,…and we kept on going and kept on going…until we made it through. It didn’t take too long, maybe two takes; two takes and we were on it again. And everybody started looking around and smiling.” Ashford added, “I hadn’t played in twenty years. But it’s like falling off a horse–you don’t forget where the head is. You just get back up on it.”
The success of the film will be followed by a tour for the reunited group. “But you know, we’re blessed in a lot of ways,” Ashford said of the idea of performing again. “We have some backup singers that are incredible. You know, they sing just as good as the people who’ve been guesting with us. And so we should really have a successful tour, because they want the opportunity to work with the Funk Brothers and we want the opportunity to work with them. So it will be a tremendous experience. But the thing is just to work with my friends again. You know, this is my family. I never realized how lonely I was until we got back together in the basement, and I looked into their faces. Words can’t describe that….That’s why when I look at what [the filmmakers] did in depicting what we did back then, they did an excellent job. But see, what [Paul Justman] may not know is, he had to do that. God meant for him to do that….For him–not Spielberg or any of these other people, but him. Because he had the sensitivity, as well as the connection with the Funk Brothers, the trust of the Funk Brothers.”