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Standing In The Shadows
Of Motown (PG)

Artisan Entertainment
Official Site
Director: Paul Justman
Producers: Paul Justman, Sandford Passman, Alan Slutsky
Written by: narration by Walter Dallas & Ntozake Shange; from Alan Slutsky’s book, Standing In The Shadows Of Motown
Cast: Richard “Pistol” Allen, Jack Ashford, Bob Babbitt, Bootsy Collins, Johnny Griffith, Ben Harper, Joe Hunter, Uriel Jones, Montell Jordan, Chaka Khan, Gerald Levert, Joe Messina, Me’Shell NdegeOcello, Joan Osborne, Rudy Robinson, Tom Scott, Eddie Willis, Andre Braugher

Rating: out of 5

Some movies leave you exhilirated and gasping for breath. This is often a highly subjective experience, leaving loved ones scratching their heads at films that moved you deeply, and vice versa. When I left the theater after seeing Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, I was thinking that anyone who isn’t moved by this film must not have a pulse. A few days’ reflection, and I still think it’s a wonderful movie, but I can see how some discerning viewers might not flip over it. Those would be 1) people who dislike documentaries on principle or 2) people who don’t like Motown music.

Guitar doctor Slutsky, a.k.a. Dr. Licks, wrote a book about James Jamerson, a Motown studio musician widely hailed as the best bass player there ever was, and about the other session musicians he worked with. These unsung heroes, Slutsky claimed, had played on more #1 hits than anyone else, ever. They called themselves the Funk Brothers. We never heard of them, and most of us, as the movie’s opening minutes reveal, never even paused to consider who was playing the instruments behind “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” “My Girl,” or “Heat Wave.” It took Slutsky several years to find partners and financing to rectify this crime against music.

Standing In The Shadows Of Motown interviews several surviving Funk Brothers, who describe their days at [motown address]. These recollections are intercut with archival footage, stills, a couple of re-enacted events, and electrifying performances of classic Motown tunes with the Funk Bros. playing behind the likes of Ben Harper, Joan Osborne, Me’Shell Ndege’Ocello, Bootsy Collins, Chaka Khan, and others.

Some of the reminiscences paint Motown management (read: Berry Gordy) as a less than benevolent employer. Gordy hired musicians to spy on other musicians and snitch on them if they worked gigs at other studios or clubs. He also was not the most sensitive communicator. The Funk Brothers learned of the closing of Motown’s Detroit operations when they reported for work and were greeted by a terse sign on the studio’s door. But the considerable cooperation needed from Motown for this film to see the light of day, not to mention the music rights, prevented too much slagging from going on. In fact, Motown, in time-honored tradition, is cashing in on the movie, issuing the soundtrack on Hip-O Records, and sponsoring the Standing In The Shadows Of Motown contest.

There’s frankly not a lot you could do to go wrong with this material. The movie is a revival meeting for fans of soul and R&B, and I got the spirit. The songs are instantly recognizable classics of what Keith Knight calls booty-higher-than-your-head funk, and the contemporary performers selected to participate are clearly wide-eyed fans of the Funk Brothers. While enjoyable for all, the movie is definitely send you if you’re a child of the ’60s and ’70s (or wish you were).

Thank you Dr. Slutsky. But most especially, thank you, Funk Brothers, for the soundtrack of our lives.

Includes performances of: “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” “Heat Wave,” “You Really Got A Hold On Me,” “Do You Love Me?,” “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” “Shotgun,” “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted?,” “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” “Cool Jerk,” “Cloud Nine,” “What’s Going On,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. [Jump to interview with some Funk Brothers…]

—Roxanne Bogucka


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