December 23, 2002 -- "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" is an interesting story about how a crew of little-known jazz musicians powered a little record label called Motown to the top of the charts and kept it there for decades. The real star of this movie, however, is the music. It makes you want to get up and dance in the aisles.
This documentary centers on the Funk Brothers, a collection of mostly jazz musicians who became the studio band for Motown Records, and a touring road band for Motown artists. From 1959 to 1972 they backed such famous singers as The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. The Funk Brothers sold more records than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis and the Beach Boys combined, yet they have remained in the background all these years, until now. This is their film. Berry Gordy, founder of Motown records (who hired the Funk Brothers), and the megahit songwriting trio of Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier are barely mentioned in the film. Among the songs Holland, Dozier and Holland wrote was "Standing in the Shadows of Love," a huge hit for the Four Tops, which inspired the title of this film.
Interviews with the surviving Funk Brothers are combined with file footage and still photos which make up the bulk of the historical material in the film, along with some re-enactments. Studio and stage sessions are also in the film, in which the Funk Brothers reunite to play classic Motown numbers with modern singers. The high quality of these sessions should be enough to convince anyone the Funk Brothers were the real power behind Motown. These guys still rock and rule. The Funk Brothers argue in the movie that any singer, including Deputy Dawg, would have had hit records, as long as that singer was backed by the Funk Brothers. Their music is a convincing supporting argument. In the film they back modern singers like Bootsy Collins ("Do You Love Me?" and "Cool Jerk"), Ben Harper ("Ain't Too Proud to Beg" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine"), Montel Jordan ("Ain't No Mountain High Enough" with Chaka Khan), Chaka Khan ("What's Going On"), Gerald Levert ("Shotgun" and "Reach Out, I'll Be There"), Me'Shell Ndegeocello ("You've Really Got a Hold on Me" and "Cloud Nine"), Joan Osborne sings "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?" and "(Love is Like a) Heat Wave."
One way you can tell if a band is good is how tight the sound is, that is, do the bass and drums form a solid foundation? Do the guitars and keyboards mesh? Do the horns weave into the melody without overpowering it? Do all the parts of the band fit together like the threads of a beautiful tapestry? The Funk Brothers come across with a sound that is ultra-tight. It makes you want to get up and dance. It is joyful, soaring, wonderful music.
As far as the documentary aspect of the film goes, it is fairly well done, but it pales in comparison to the electrifying music performances. One of the interesting things about this story is that some of the members of the band were white, but they and the blacks seem to get along as brothers, even during the Detroit riots. There is a strong undercurrent of racial harmony in the film. Contrast that to today's soul music, which has a limited appeal to white audiences. Motown Music of the 60s and 70s was black music, but it had great crossover appeal to white audiences, in much the same way jazz had crossed that line years before. Perhaps it is no coincidence that most of the Funk Brothers are jazz musicians first and foremost, as well as being the best pop band around. Their jazz-honed improvisational skills were crucial to their success as pop studio musicians. Another revelation in the film is that the Funk Brothers were not just studio musicians. In addition to their jazz gigs, they also went on the road with Motown performers to do lots of live shows in front of thousands of fans, including a tour in England, where some fans had actually heard of the Funk Brothers.
There are the usual tales of drug abuse and other tragedies that befell some of the musicians, but fortunately for those of us who watched the movie, there are still enough of the Funk Brothers left to put together a band that can kick the crap out of any other band out there. The interviews in the film aren't all about how the Funk Brothers were overlooked, and mourning the loss of those who have died. There are funny stories, too, and inside stories about how the Funk Brothers laid down those famous tracks in the small dirt-floored garage that was "Studio A" at Motown Records. This film rates a B.
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