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Finding the Funk: Film Review

Finding the Funk Still SXSW - H 2013

The Bottom Line

Shallow-feeling doc offers good interviews and great music, but no live performance film

Venue:

South By Southwest, 24 Beats per Second (VH1 RockDocs)

Director-Screenwriter:

Nelson George

Nelson George’s doc connects the dots between James Brown and Prince.

 

AUSTIN — A danceable doc that spends productive time discussing a handful of immortal artists and the grooves they produced, Nelson George‘s offers just enough of the good stuff to make viewers who know something about the music to wish it did more. Adequate for TV play but hardly the definitive exploration one hopes for given the talent involved, it’s enough to send viewers off in search of funk’s more obscure pioneers.

George, a former editor who has covered much cultural ground since his 1980’s stint there, recruits Ahmir Questlove Thompson of The Roots as narrator, suggesting that this hippest of hip-hop innovators had a level of creative involvement that, given the ground covered here, seems unlikely: Though the film mentions some obscure artists and explores the Dayton, Ohio music scene for longer than expected, its overall syllabus could have been penned by any fan who’s done much more than listen to oldies radio or plugged "P-Funk" into Pandora.

PHOTOS: A-Listers Angle to Play Music’s Biggest Icons

Which is to say that, grace notes and bonus beats aside, we go from godfather James Brown to Sly Stone, slide from the Ohio Players to Parliament/Funkadelic, and wind up at Prince and the eventual hip-hop rediscovery of by-then unfashionable artists. The movie is smart to acknowledge pre-JB applications of the word "funk" to music — Horace Silver and other jazz players had a flavor demanding new slang — but is less informative on the other end of the timeline, spending time name-checking global genres and irrelevant rock acts (must we muddy this gene pool with Phish?) that could be better used on one more story about Brown’s methods as a bandleader.

Or (to make the most obvious complaint) on performance footage. Though the film works audio and plenty of vintage pix into the mix, it’s so in love with talking heads (some of whom, like D’Angelo and bassist Marcus Miller, are surprisingly insightful) that it neglects to show us funk bands in . That’s particularly puzzling given its association with VH1’s ; the TV connection does, however, explain the presence of distracting and sometimes inane bits of onscreen trivia dubbed "Funk Chunks."

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