Finding the Funk

Finding the Funk is a crash course in the origins and influence of funk music from the legends that made it popular. The feature length documentary recently screened at the Pan African Film Festival before heading to broadcast on VH1.

Filmmaker and pop culture critic Nelson George, who’s written extensively on music throughout his career, brings his love of funk to conversations with icons like Sly Stone, Bootsy Collins, George Clinton, Nile Rodgers of Chic, James Brown, Mike D of the Beastie Boys, and Sheila E., as well as contemporary artists like D'Angelo and The Roots' Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, who also narrates the film.

The documentary, which defines funk as "the bridge between '60s soul and '80s hip hop," uses those periods as a marker to trace the roots of funk chronologically and geographically from its Middle American origins to its eventual shift into hip hop two decades later. Intended for TV broadcast, it features a straightforward series of talking head segments naming the great artists of the genre and delving into their sound, style, and instrumentation. Public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson also chimes in to provide historical and cultural context.

Composed mostly of interviews, performance footage and funky animated graphics, it's a no-frills journey into a colorful time in music history. But the value of the film is really in the information it provides. With a sprawling genre of music like funk, and different definitions of what funk actually is, covering all the bases of the music's history is no easy task. But there's a great deal of info packed into the film, enough even to call for a second viewing.

There's also a homegrown quality to the commentary from the artists. Personal anecdotes – like James Mtume telling the story of when he symbolically "passed the torch" to hip hop by allowing Notorious BIG to sample the song Juicy Fruit – are like listening to loved ones swap stories at the family reunion. And with aging legends like James Brown and Sly Stone contributing to the story in their own words, the film captures a valuable piece of music history that won't be around forever.

Finding the Funk can easily be seen as the answer to elders who lament the miseducation of today's music fans, who may not know or appreciate the lineage of the sounds they listen to. It definitely makes for fun and educational viewing.

After a length film festival run, Finding the Funk is currently being broadcast on VH1.