Those guys, the Funk Brothers, played on songs you know by heart, every Motown single and LP released in the 1960s and slightly beyond: "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," "Reach Out I'll Be There" and too many others to name. Yet as John Entwistle, the man who gave funk to the Who's early fury, once admitted, "I didn't know that it was James Jamerson. I just called him the guy who played bass for Motown, but along with every other bassist in England, I was trying to learn what he was doing."
By the time writer Nelson George got to Jamerson for a Musician magazine article in 1983, the bassist whose single-finger playing style reshaped the pop and R&B landscape had been interviewed only twice. He was justifiably angry and bitter after years of toiling anonymously in the shadow of Motown head Berry Gordy, who had ransacked Detroit's bebop hangouts for their finest players but paid them only enough to ensure they had to take outside gigs. (The Funk Brothers played not just on Motown hits but also with the likes of Jackie Wilson, the Capitols, John Lee Hooker and Aretha Franklin.) "We were doing more of the job than we thought we were doing, and we didn't get any songwriting credit," Jamerson told George. "It did make me sort of mad, but what could I do?" Nothing, it turned out: He died shortly after the story appeared.
Five more Brothers have joined Jamerson over the years, including keyboardist Griffith, who died November 10 at age 66. Were it not for Alan Slutsky, whose 1989 book and accompanying CDs provide the title for director Paul Justman's documentary about the Funk Brothers, they might have slipped through the cracks and into their graves. But, blessedly, these pioneers have been rescued from the dustbin of history and given their own film, in which they play starring roles twice -- first when recounting their tales for the camera, and again when the band regroups to show off old songs using new voices (among them, Joan Osborne, Meshell Ndegeocello and Ben Harper).
Justman wisely points the camera at the Brothers and a handful of acolytes and lets them talk with each other. They share stories: about how they met Gordy and each other; how they shaped "The Sound of Young America"; how they were brought to Hitsville, U.S.A., at all hours by the likes of Norman Whitfield and Smokey Robinson and the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland to slather grease all over a smoky studio.
If there's a flaw with the film, it's that Justman too often stages re-enactments while someone's talking, as if he's afraid the mere tales themselves won't hold our interest. But they will, as long as there's a kid slapping a bass, a sampler swiping a groove or some middle-aged couple slow dancing to Marvin Gaye or the Miracles.