Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Standing In The Shadows Of Motown

In the man-on-the-street interviews early on in Paul Justman's documentary Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, a few record-store mavens are asked who they associate with the Motown sound. One by one, they trot out a roster of marquee stars: Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Supremes, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight, and others. Then, the interviewer swiftly pulls out the rug: –Yes, but who played the music on all those records?–Save for one poor fellow who meekly offers "The Pips" as Knight's backing band, no one has an answer. The correct response is The Funk Brothers, a tight collective of jazz and blues innovators from the Detroit club scene who created the soulful foundation for a minor revolution in popular music. Standing In The Shadows may succeed in nothing else (and, regrettably, its other accomplishments are largely negligible), but a few more men on the street will know to give credit where it's due. According to the opening titles, driven home by the authoritative voice of Andre Braugher (Homicide), The Funk Brothers "played on more hits than The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, Elvis, and The Beatles combined, which makes them the biggest hit machine in the history of popular music." Forty years after Berry Gordy lured the musicians to his new label in 1959, Justman and his crew were on hand for a reunion of the surviving members, who are happy to reminisce about old times, collaborate on a dozen rousing studio performances, and stake their claim on the spotlight. But what should be a momentous occasion instead gets anonymously processed through the Doc-U-Matic, with exhilarating live material cut into a sloppy assemblage of interviews, archival footage, and awkward reenactments. Inspired by the book of the same name, which presumably had the space to consider the scene and the individual musicians in much fuller detail, Standing In The Shadows rushes through an anecdotal history of The Funk Brothers, from its glory days in the studio known as "The Snake Pit" to its rude disposal after Motown packed up for Los Angeles. Each player gets a segment, some more colorful than others, but the heart of the film lies in the crisply recorded and photographed performance footage, which convincingly underlines the sturdy, expansive backbone behind Motown's biggest hits. The tracks were so strong, one musician brags, that "Deputy Dawg could have sang on them" and they would have still been hits. Perhaps so, but the contemporary vocalists who take on the old songs–including Joan Osborne, Ben Harper, Bootsy Collins, and Chaka Khan–often have trouble wrapping their mouths around them. Only Me'shell NdegeOcello, with her soulful renditions of "You Really Got A Hold On Me" and "Cloud Nine," brings the same depth of feeling to her own interpretations. In paying homage to The Funk Brothers, Standing In The Shadows inadvertently underplays the Motown stars, but it can be forgiven for trying to redress the balance.


Share This Story

Get our newsletter