Standing in the Shadows of Motown
Standing in the Shadow of Motown could have been a better film, but it tells such a compelling story about such a rich vein of musical history that it's hard to resist.
That story concerns the Funk Brothers, the Motown Records house band from 1961 to '71. Music-biz insiders have long acknowledged the group as one of the greatest rock 'n' roll bands of all time, but the general public never knew much about them. This documentary film is a belated attempt (and in some ways too late an attempt) to shine some light on these forgotten heroes.
The movie centers on a 2000 Detroit reunion by the band. The surviving musicians played six nights at the Royal Oak Music Theater, revisited their old studio in the basement of 2648 W. Grand Blvd. and other local sites, and sat down for long interviews. Director Paul Justman and producer Allan Slutsky (whose 1989 book Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson inspired the film) assembled these various pieces into the finished picture.
The filmmakers got lukewarm support from Motown. The company allowed the filmmakers to use the old songs and the old studio in the film on the condition that the movie didn't probe the company's financial arrangements with the musicians. This leaves a crucial part of the story untold. Moreover, neither Motown founder Berry Gordy nor any of his biggest stars sat down for an interview or agreed to appear at the reunion concert.
As a result, the concert vocals are handled by such contemporary singers as Joan Osborne, Meshell Ndegeocello, Ben Harper, Gerald Levert, Bootsy Collins, and Chaka Khan. So what you get is a band full of semiretired musicians trying to capture their glory days while pop stars play Motown karaoke. It's interesting, but the soundtrack is a pale imitation of the original recordings.
Where the movie comes alive is when it tells the history of those classic singles. Through interviews and examples, the film isolates the contributions of each musician, dissects specific songs, and provides a convincing impression of what it was like to work in the band during the '60s. For anyone who could never figure out why those Motown singles had such a captivating, majestic sound, these background stories will prove fascinating.
Unfortunately, Justman decided to illustrate some stories with hokey, acted-out re-creations of past events. That contributes to the picture's overall lack of visual style and coherence. And it would have been a much better movie if it had been made 10 or 15 years earlier, when Funk Brothers such as bassist James Jamerson and drummer Benny Benjamin were still alive and everyone's memories would have been fresher.