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Only the Strong Survive While Standing in the Shadows of a Music Documentary

By Elizabeth Blozan

Sam Moore, from Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker's 'Only the Strong Survive.' Photo courtesy of Miramax Films.

The "making of" tale behind the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown packs almost as much drama as the film itself. It all began in 1990, when guitarist Allan Slutsky found himself a startled nominee for the Ralph J. Gleason Award for his first book, Standing in the Shadows of Motown. He had been compelled to write the book after he stumbled across the remarkable fraternity of Detroit musicians behind the magic behind Motown; they called themselves the Funk Brothers. What made their story unique was the fact that their jazz-informed grooves not only drove hit after hit, but because their names were not published on the records, very few people knew the artists behind the groove.

Slutsky earned the Gleason Award, and, realizing that the book had mass appeal, he thought, why not make a movie?. The director Slutsky brought on board, Paul Justman (Let the Good Times Roll; editor of Robert Frank's Cocksucker Blues), was first to try to put it in perspective for him: "I said, ‘Allan, making an independent film could kill you.'"  But neither of these Motown fanatics dreamed that for the next 11 years, they would fight tooth and nail just to begin rolling film. Justman swears they pitched the project literally a thousand times all over the world.

To their surprise Slutsky and Justman found themselves fighting record executives and artists who were actually working behind the scenes to kill the project. And despite a $90,000 fee for a vocalist, the filmmakers couldn't find one who would agree to perform in a Funk Brothers' reunion concert. "We specifically went after people who had a history of recording Motown songs and would wax poetic about the musicians in magazines," says Slutsky. "You can't name an artist we didn't hit. We thought people would be clawing over each other to get to those guys, but they wouldn't give us the time of day." 

A decade of pitches left Slutsky nearly bankrupt. He sold all his guitars at least once. "I lived at the South Street Loans pawnshop," he recalls. "At one point, I had seven instruments in there. I knew I was a derelict the day I took in my last guitar to pay my phone bill—I was making huge long distance calls—then got this call to play a gig. I had to bum money to get back the guitar, play the session, then take the guitar back to the pawn shop to pay back my friend."

But he never lost his fight. "I could deal with the vacant stares and the people who just didn't get it," says Slutsky, "but not the people who stood in our way." Worse for Slutsky was the idea of letting down the Funk Brothers. "They went through a painful thing, and as the years went on they made peace with it. And now here's Allan Slutsky ripping off the scab and saying, You guys could be stars! If I failed, I'd make them go through it all over again." 

What Slutsky calls a "horrible miracle" ultimately delivered an investor free of both music and film ties. One of Slutsky's closest friends and most loyal cheerleaders died quite suddenly, and at the funeral Slutsky ended up sitting next to software engineer Peter Elliot, who also happened to have played bass and happened to have just read Slutsky's book. Elliot had just sold an invention to Cisco Systems, making him a billionaire. He was in for the full $2.5 million budget for the film. Says Slutsky, "My friend left me a going-away present on his way up."

With Elliot and partner David Scott backing the project, Justman drew producer's rep Jonathan Dana to the team. Shortly after, Microsoft underwrote a seven-minute promo of the film that was shown at the Sundance Film Festival to showcase Microsoft's new digital projection system. Artisan Entertainment saw the promo and committed verbally to theatrical and DVD/home video distribution. The crew filmed entirely on location in Detroit, shooting concerts on 35mm and interviews on 16mm, with a few unplanned moments captured on Justman's personal mini-DV camcorder.

The film earned $1.6 million four months into its US release. DVD/home video sales and rentals should exceed this total, thanks to a robust two-disc DVD (released on April 26) produced by Artisan that includes jam sessions, commentary and a "Trivia Track" (think "Pop Up Video" for documentary geeks). And in February, Slutsky brushed off the battle dust to accept a Grammy Award for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for  his production of a Funk Brothers reunion concert. But Slutsky and Justman count their most cherished success as the 12-minute standing ovation the Funk Brothers received at the film's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

All of this has pretty well smoothed any feathers ruffled by criticism from documentary purists of Justman's decision to use staged interviews, narration and, even worse, Unsolved Mysteries-style re-creations. He expected to "take a beating" in Toronto from the critics, well aware that these devices might come off as overly contrived, although the film had received rave reviews from test audiences. Justman maintains that for a documentary to work theatrically it must come down to "facts wrapped in emotion." According to him, "The stories these 65-, 70-year-old guys are telling are about young men. They were the hippest, craziest guys in the world. They were fun and they were handsome. I wanted the audience to see that. So for me the film has to have emotional points that build to that final moment when you say, I know these men; I feel for how they were together, that they loved each other, that there was no racial prejudice and that it was a rich musical life."

Following the release of the DVD for Standing in the Shadows of Motown, another documentary on survivors of R&B's early years comes to screens this month, courtesy of Miramax. Only the Strong Survive is the latest from veterans DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, whose phenomenal music documentary vérité résumé, between them and separately, includes Down from the Mountain, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Dont Look Back and Monterey Pop. Quite different in style from Shadows of Motown, Only the Strong Survive is no less upbeat and also features live concerts and reminiscences from artists such as Isaac Hayes, Wilson Pickett, Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave) Mary Wilson and Jerry Butler.

The project came to them from music critic and R&B fanatic Roger Friedman. Miramax head Harvey Weinstein quickly signed on out of a love of the music that dates back to his pre-Hollywood days booking R&B in Albany, New York, but Pennebaker and Hegedus suspect this first co-production confused Miramax the organization."They're used to different films and they're mostly lawyers," says Pennebaker, who claims Miramax waited for a script to sign off on all through physical production. "We gave up trying to explain it to them."  He and Hegedus describe Weinstein as "astute," but, adds Pennebaker, "He's a hard guy to classify. He tends to play his own game and you don't know if he's with you or not. He's sometimes called ‘Scissorhands' because he wants to cut everything. But he has a definite sense of people's time constraints. You may want to watch the cat walk across the screen, but most people want to see the cat and get out of there."  And Scissorhands kept his shears in his lap when he saw the final cut. Just to be safe, says Pennebaker, the filmmakers lied about the running time.

Pennebaker and Hegedus shot Only the Strong Survive on digital video, a medium they now consider essential to their economics. "I had to pull Penny kicking and screaming from his Aton," says Hegedus. "But now I don't think he cares if he ever uses it again." Pennebaker finds that video outperforms film in the low-light conditions found in music documentaries. Although he complains that the smaller cameras are "hard to hand-hold steadily and the tendency is to just spray photography around," he has become enamored with the Sony 250. "I think you don't get necessarily a better picture, but it's easier to film. I like the precision I get with it on my shoulder."

But advances in technology have relieved none of the challenge of vérité field sound.  "It's not like the old days, where the bad sound is part of the environment and everybody got used to it," says Hegedus. "And there's so much noise in life right now." The filmmakers engineer concerts, but rely on wireless mics and even onboard mics backstage. "Sometimes people don't want to bother with the wireless mics, or you've got too many people scattering," says Pennebaker. 

Filming events more or less as Friedman tossed them on the table, Pennebaker and Hegedus shot and actually finished editing the film before completing the music licensing. "In this kind of film, you almost never pick a particular scene because of trying to save on music rights," says Pennebaker. "It'd be very short-sighted. I can't imagine working like that." But thanks to a history with the labels and a strong consultant, he and Hegedus actually came in slightly under the licensing budget, which, as with that of Motown, exceeded the cost of the physical production.

Hegedus described the film as a challenge to edit without a built-in story. Instead, she found that Friedman's presence stimulated interviews wherever they went. "Roger's a journalist and that's what he knew how to do," says Hegedus. "It was a little out of the ordinary for us." They eventually decided to keep Friedman and his interviews in the film. Initially, though, "we didn't want that at all," says Hegedus. "But the film looked like a piece of Swiss cheese [without it]." The filmmakers also used a long-standing Memphis radio show hosted by two conveniently hilarious R&B veterans, Rufus Thomas and Jay Davis. Their repartée was shot with two cameras. "We had a narrative film dialogue which gave it a succinctness which worked for us," explains Pennebaker. "But we didn't plan that."

Although committed to vérité, Pennebaker and Hegedus frankly welcome the audiences films such as Bowling for Columbine brought to theaters last year, audiences they argue strengthen the industry. But they remain clear about why they are committed to their signature style. "What we're interested in is trying to show a real-life story in a way that the drama of real life comes through and you feel the tension of what's happening," explains Hegedus. Adds Pennebaker, "We're closer to playwriting than documentary films. You don't need a narrator in a play, and you don't need to tell anyone why. When you narrate, people stop looking to figure out what's happening because they're waiting for you to tell them." 

Despite the fact that Pennebaker and Hegedus have spent 30 years in the trenches, they insist few projects get off the ground without a fight. "We always start out at ground zero, like first-time filmmakers," explains Hegedus. "Especially in films where we don't know what's going to happen. There's not a lot of money out there and there's more competition." They often self-finance a 30-minute promo and find their best shot in the foreign market, counting agent Jane Balfour, BBC's Nick Fraser and Channel 4's Peter Dale among the short list of realistic investors. If that list fails them, they have to regroup. "You have to decide if you're gonna quit. Which you won't," says Pennebaker. "Once you get hooked into a film, it's hard to tear away from it. It's like a lobster trap."

Or as Standing in the Shadows' Justman says, "It's horrible to want to make a film."  For his partner Slutsky, the prospect of embarking on a second film requires no thought at all: "No! Hell no! Actually, that's a lie."


Elizabeth Blozan is a freelance entertainment writer and publicist based in Santa Monica, California.