"Standing In The Shadows of Motown" is less a documentary than an appreciation. And is there anyone on Earth with a pulse who doesn't appreciate Motown? But Paul Justman's film, inspired by the Allan Slutsky book, still has a little hash to settle.
Who should get credit for the stunning number of songs Motown lodged into the collective consciousness? There's Berry Gordy, of course, the producer who created Motown and ran it like the Detroit hit factory it was. There are the legendary performers who recorded for the label: Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, the Supremes to name but a few. And the songwriting teams, like Holland Dozier Holland, who got less of the spotlight but plenty of the residuals. And then there are the musicians themselves, the people who played the instruments and laid down that immortal sound. People like...well you probably canít name a single one. Neither could any of the people the filmmakers interviewed in a record store. And this is the oversight the film corrects, wrapping it up in a big red bow and lovingly handing it back to the unheralded musicians of Motown's golden age.
You may not be surprised to learn that Gordy went to the local jazz and blues clubs to recruit session musician for his record label back in the early 1960s. You may not be surprised to learn the musicians often earned a flat $10 a song. But you may be surprised to find out that these musicians, in a large and somewhat loose aggregate, considered themselves a band, called The Funk Brothers, and they played on virtually every Motown record until Gordy moved the company to Los Angeles in the early 1970s. If you roll with the filmmaker's logic, that means the Funk Brothers played on more number one records than the Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and Elvis combined. Yet they remained, as the title suggests, in the R&B shadows, vastly underpaid and known only to the most devout music aficionado.
Justman tells the Funk Brothers story in a leisurely if sometimes erratic manner, intercutting the interviews with archival footage, dramatic recreations of anecdotal events, and a special concert created for the documentary in which the Funk Brothers are given top billing on a Detroit marquee. There is only the briefest mention of Berry Gordy, of drug and alcohol abuse, or of internal rivalries. VH1 Behind the Music it ain't. The Buena Vista Social Club of Detroit it is. Yet there is something just a little too eager in the whole endeavor. At times it seems the film is going to let us in on the secret of how the Motown sound was created. But at the point where that would involve collaboration with the songwriters, the star vocalists, or the hired arrangers, the film cuts to another Funk Brother memory. One interviewee suggests that anyone could have sung a Motown hit and it would still have been a hit. The same, of course, is often said about session musicians. In the desire to give the Funk Brothers credit, the filmmakers may have saddled them with too much credit.
But at the end of the day it's still about the music. And if you've got a pulse, "Standing In The Shadows of Motown" has something to move you.
© 2003 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 12/02
Standing in the Shadows of Motown