Standing in the Shadows of Motown

2002, PG, 104 min. Directed by Paul Justman.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 15, 2002

Just about every American of a certain age knows the Motown sound and can rattle off his or her favorite hits with enthusiastic alacrity, whether they be tunes by Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, and so on. These pop songs from the Sixties and Seventies still grab new listeners with their immediate hooks, rhythms, and soaring vocals as they recycle their way through new generations in our movie soundtracks, commercials, music videos, and Golden Oldies stations. We know the sound well, but what of the music -- the riffs that percolate behind the singers out in front? Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the film documentary based on research material put forth in Allan Slutsky's book, casts light on this murky subject. The movie brings the Motown musicians -- a regular house band of session players known as the Funk Brothers -- front and center. Their heretofore anonymous riffs are now attached to faces and names. The movie gathers together the surviving band members -- Jack Ashford, Bob Babbitt, Joe Hunter, Uriel Jones, Joe Messina, Eddie Willis, and Johnny Griffith (who died earlier this week) -- to reflect and reminisce about those heady days of creating music in the tiny basement studio of Berry Gordy's Detroit “Home of the Hits” (until Gordy moved the operation to Los Angeles in 1972). It's a nostalgic journey, sure, but also an informative one in which they break down the mechanics and origins of specific riffs and tunes. Most of the Motown musicians were drafted by Gordy from the Detroit area jazz joints, and it's this music that most of these men considered their true avocation at the time they were cutting these tracks. The Motown session work was their day job which allowed them to pursue their first love: jazz. Although the singers are the ones who became identified with the songs, the studio work of the Funk Brothers has been responsible for more No. 1 hits than any other ensemble in the history of the world. Astounding information such as this makes it hard to turn away from this documentary. These musicians regarded the singers as the ones who manifested the raw talent, while they regarded themselves as the ones who could provide musical experience and knowledge. The movie also provides loving recollections of the contributions of the Brothers who had already passed away before the start of filming: Benny Benjamin, Eddie Brown, Earl Van Dyke, Robert White, Richard Allan, and probably the most famous of the group -- bassist James Jamerson. Punctuating these verbal recollections are modern-day interpretive performances of some of these songs by the likes of Joan Osborne, Meshell Ndegeocello, Bootsy Collins, Ben Harper, and Chaka Khan. Delightful as they are, these performances fall into the same traps they did the first time around: The singer is out in front garnering the close-ups and applause while the musicians remain “shadowed” in the background. The film also is marred by an unfortunate decision to include some narrative re-enactments of key biographical moments. These interludes unnecessarily derail the story while lending very little to our overall comprehension. The absence of Berry Gordy among those providing testimony (even though the mogul permitted the filmmakers rights to use 30 songs) arouses curiosity for the reasons behind the omission. Still, when all is said and done, there ain't no mountain high enough that should keep you from getting to this movie. We've heard it through the grapevine for too long.

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Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Paul Justman

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