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Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002)
Standing in the Shadows of Motown is a 2002 documentary film directed by Paul Justman. It recounts the story of The Funk Brothers, the uncredited and largely unheralded studio musicians who were the hand picked house band by Berry Gordy in 1959. They were the band who recorded and performed on Motowns' recordings from 1959 to 1972. The film was inspired by the 1989 book Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson, a bass guitar instruction book by Allan Slutsky, which features the bass lines of James Jamerson. The film covers the Funk Brothers' career via interviews with surviving band members, archival footage and still photos, dramatized re-enactments, and narration by actor Andre Braugher. The film also features new live performances of several Motown hit songs, with the Funk Brothers backing up Gerald Levert, Me'shell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Ben Harper, Bootsy Collins, Chaka Khan, and Montell Jordan. The impetus behind making the film was to bring these influential players out of anonymity.
If the answer to this question is remotely interesting to you, run, don't walk, to see Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the documentary reintroducing the not-quite-famous Funk Brothers to the world after decades of obscurity.
While I like music and I like music history, Standing is unfortunately totally overwrought, deeply biased, and wholly designed to make you feel guilty about ignoring what the filmmakers clearly believe are The Greatest Musicians of All Time. Near the beginning of the film, filmmaker Paul Justman drops into a record store and randomly asks if the shoppers like Motown music, then asking, 'Well did you ever stop to think about who was playing in the band with those guys!?' His tone is palpably vitriolic and, honestly, whiney.
But who can blame those poor saps in the record stores? I'd never heard of the Funk Brothers, just like I couldn't tell you who currently plays backup for Sting, Eminem, or Christina Aguilera. And I don't care.
Sure, it's a stretch to compare Christina to Diana Ross, but you catch my drift. No one remembers the bands because it's the vocals that stick in your mind. Sure, the Funk Brothers are very good, but are they exemplary to the point of deserving their own film? Not really. Justman and the surviving Funk Brothers obviously feel differently: At one point a bandmember goes so far as to say, 'Deputy Dawg could have been singing,' because it was their music that made the songs into hits. Uh huh.
Ironic then that a large chunk of Standing in the Shadows of Motown is consumed by what appears to be a small, manufactured reunion concert, wherein the remaining Funk Brothers play their old hits while contemporary artists sing the words. I don't know if it's supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but having one-hit wonders like Me'Shell NdegéOcello and Joan Osborne butcher the vocals is about as cruel as one can get to Motown. (Osborne massacres 'Heat Wave' by taking the memorable chorus down an octave.) I'll let you draw your own conclusions about the presence of Bootsy Collins and Chaka Khan (who inexplicably won a Grammy for her work here).
The good news is that the Funk Brothers are themselves full of history and lively stories, and when Justman gives them a chance to talk they are very engaging with tales of old Motown. It's too bad that the narration (over stock photos and, believe it or not, re-enactments) is unfortunately pedantic and useless, and the reunion concert footage is so God-awful I wanted to fast-forward through it. And that, sadly, is the bulk of the film.
In the final analysis, no matter what you think of the Funk Brothers, they undoubtedly deserve a far better movie than this.
Say, one of them's no brother!