Coordinating musicians the same way that movie mogul Darryl Zanuck corralled movie stars and filmmakers, Barry Gordy created a product that successfully stood atop the pop music scene for years. Combining rhythm & blues with gospel, Gordy's Motown sound established Detroit as Hitsville U.S.A. with a stable of legends. Everyone knows Marvin Gaye, Dianna Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, and Stevie Wonder. But who were the musicians that backed them up with some of the finest tracks ever recorded?
Standing in the Shadows of Motown actually asks that question of a few self-proclaimed knowledgeable music fans in a Detroit record store, and they uncertainly respond with names like the Pips and the Miracles. But they are wrong. The obscure miracle men who transformed Studio A in Gordy's garage (known by the musicians as "the Snake Pit") into Hitsville U.S.A. were the Funk Brothers, and Paul Justman's documentary determines to set the record straight and bring these unsung musicians into the limelight—forty years too late to bring deserved fame and fortune, but a well conceived project that will forever change the way you listen to those Motown hits.
And what hits! Over a fourteen-year period, the Funk Brothers created more #1 hits than the Beach Boys, Rolling Stones, Elvis, and the Beatles combined! They are the primary people that introduced soul music to mainstream America.
Combining footage from a reunion concert in 2000 with interviews and re-enactments, the Funk Brothers demonstrate that they were the true Motown backbone. Despite the fact that singers like Joan Osborne, Ben Harper, Montell Jordan, Chaka Khan, and Bootsy Collins front the old Funk Brothers in the reunion concert, the songs come across just like the old days. Although the camera lingers too long on the non-Funk brothers during these sequences, the long takes of "Heat Wave," "Shot Gun," "Baby Love," "Heard it Through the Grapevine," and "What's Going On" allow the realization to sink in that the Funk Brothers hold the real key to these great songs' power—that it didn't rely on the singing leads of Dianna Ross, Smokey Robinson, or Marvin Gaye.
The conversations between the musicians illuminate how they lived for music, even though they would occasionally hide out from Gordy at a local funeral parlor to assure themselves of a needed break. The daily routine of these mostly former auto factory workers consisted of creating grooves in the Snake Pit and then jamming into the wee hours at the Chit Chat or some other jazz bar. Naturally, these sessions allowed for creativity that would routinely find its way into the Motown recordings.
As surviving members reminisce, their original bass player is deified as the real anchor of the Motown sound—James Jamerson. They tell stories about all night drives where Jamerson was in his own world, putting on pajamas in the car to sleep in and eating rancid pigs' feet, but he was also in his own universe on the bass. Using only one finger to pluck the strings, he could still go directions that other bassists have never duplicated—even during one of his inebriated takes where he had to play while lying down on the floor. Although Jamerson did finally receive long overdue recognition posthumously from the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, more widespread viewing of Standing in the Shadows of Motown will grant him his due from all the praise he receives from his co-musicians.
The documentary itself isn't the most creative piece of filmmaking. The re-enactments using different film stock and filters are straight forward and non-essential, providing mostly a visual break from talking head interviews and the concert footage consists of routine continual pan shots that focus primarily on the lead singers, but those entire songs also provide the most powerful moments. Given the additional background about the Funk Brothers' musicianship, it's too hard to break away from those tightly constructed songs. The music approaches perfection, and the subject matter can not be questioned.
Standing in the Shadows of Motown may not be the most creative of documentaries, but it's certainly an essential one that all music lovers should see and hear, as it gives the most thorough background and historical overview of Motown available. What it adds to the canon is a true appreciation for the music and for the creative forces behind the songs. I know that I'll never listen to Marvin Gaye or the Supremes the same way again—'ll hear those drum rolls, guitar riffs, and bass lines more distinctly and see the faces of the studio musicians who formed the foundation of Gordy's empire.