Pros: good music, sweet interviews
Cons: bad singing, could have focused more on the past
Most people are familiar with several Motown artists such as The Supremes, Smokey Robinson, The Four Tops, and The Temptations among others. But do you know who played the instruments on Motown's countless hits?
Documentary film makers asked shoppers in a small record store in Detroit that very question and no one had any idea. One interview subject says, "Um... the Pips?" No, those were back-up singers for Gladys Knight. The actual music--the distinctive Motown groove was played by a group of immensely talented musicians collectively known as The Funk Brothers.
Standing in the Shadows of Motown notes in passing that the Funk Brothers were rarely credited on Motown records, and when Motown moved to Los Angeles in the' 70s, the Funk Brothers were informed by a sign on the studio door saying simply, "No work today." It also shows that the conditions in Studio A (where all the hits were recorded in one take with no overdubbing!) were far from ideal, but they do not dwell on the past. It also would have been interesting to learn how much money the Funk Brothers made. The musicians tell how they had to take other jobs in rough, Detroit clubs to get by, but, again, this is not the emphasis of the documentary. This film is not about pitying the musicians' lack of fame; it's about celebrating their incredible musical achievements and their legacy.
Alan Slutsky tells how he was inspired to write the book Standing in the Shadows of Motown after a memorable lunch in Los Angeles with the Funk Brother who played the guitar riff on the Temptations' "My Girl." Slutsky and the guitarist were just sitting down when the unmistakable opening guitar of "My Girl" came on. The Funk Brother's eyes lit up and he started to say, "That's me!" to the waiter but stopped himself. When Slutsky asked him why he decided not to reveal his identity, the guitarist answered that "no one would believe this old fool."
The surviving Funk Brothers are far from old fools. They are, for the most part, animated and intelligent men who can still bust out the Motown sound. A good deal of the documentary (too much in my opinion) is dedicated to footage of a recent Funk Brothers reunion concert in Detroit. None of the original singers are there, so the concert ends up feeling like a karaoke bar with some of today's minor stars performing Motown songs. The only Motown star who is interviewed for this documentary is Martha Reeves.
The first concert song in the film is Gerald Levert's fantastic rendition of The Four Tops' "(Reach Out) I'll Be There." He has an excellent voice and puts a lot of emotion into his performance. I was pleasantly surprised by Joan Osbourne's two tunes, including "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted." By choosing semi-obscure singers, the filmmakers show that it is the music that makes Motown songs extraordinary, not the singers. Supremes songs, for instance, are excellent choices for karaoke because they are so easy to sing. Me'Shell NdegeOcello was fairly mediocre in her two songs. Chaka Khan murdered "What's Going On," but did an adequate version of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" with Montell Jordan. The worst singers by far were Bootsy Collins, who practically talked his songs, and Ben Harper, who was horrendous and had no stage presence. Bootsy Collins wears incredibly fabulous outfits which distract the viewer from the fact that he can't sing and make him entertaining to watch. Stick to the bass playing, honey. One of the back-up singers has a fantastic voice and should sing lead.
The more interesting part of the documentary is the interviews and archive footage. Most of the Motown musicians moved to Detroit from the South to work in the automobile factories. Berry Gordy Jr. founded Motown Records in 1959 and posted "Hitsville USA" in huge letters on the front of the building before the label had recorded a song, let alone a hit. He then scoured Detroit's jazz clubs to find the best musicians for his new recording studio. Motown's first hit, Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)," was followed by dozens of others, proving the Hitsville moniker correct. The Funk Brothers are portrayed as hit-making musical geniuses who could crank out an original song in less than an hour. There must have been arguments and creative differences, but the film makes it seem as if the Funk Brothers were forever in synch.
The interviews are interesting, and the old men are cute, especially the old piano player who plays with his mouth open. They tell humorous anecdotes, some of which are illustrated by reenactments. For instance, they hide out in a funeral parlor and get drunk at one point. I thought this fake archival footage was well-done, but some purists may be put-off by it. The film is not entirely light-hearted, though, as the Funk Brothers tell of horrible fires in Detroit, racist encounters, and personal tragedies including drug addiction and deaths. There are also moving accounts of the Vietnam War and Martin Luther King's assassination including archival footage.
The most well-known Funk Brother, the late James Jamerson, is talked about a bit more than the other musicians. He is considered to be one of the best bassists of all time. It's interesting to see his son demonstrate Jamerson's unique style of playing, and the other Funk Brothers talk about his antics on the road.
When Motown went on tour across the Pond in the mid-1960s, some British fans greeted the musicians with a sign that read, "The James Jamerson Fan Club." Recounting this story, some of the Funk Brothers seem a bit jealous. However, in a way, it is fortunate for the musicians that they were not thrust into the limelight. It is difficult to find a popular singer who has not struggled with some sort of drug or alcohol addiction. Most people yearn to be famous but then find it to be a prison. Diana Ross was recently arrested for drunk driving; Marvin Gaye had a drug problem and was shot to death by his father; most of the Temptations were drug addicts; and there could be an entire college course on the psychopathology of Michael Jackson, to mention just a few examples. So, maybe the shadows aren't such a bad place to be after all. The humble Funk Brothers have a quiet sense of pride, and, man, do they have something to be proud of.