STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN (director: Paul Justman; screenwriters: narration written by Walter Dallas and Ntozake Shange; cinematographers: Doug Milsome/Lon Stratton; editor: Anne Erikson; music: Allan Slutsky; cast: Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen, Jack Ashford,Bob Babbitt, Benny ‘Papa Zita’ Benjamin, Eddie ‘Bongo’ Brown, Bootsy Collins, Johnny Griffith, Ben Harper, Joe Hunter, James Jamerson,Uriel Jones, Montell Jordan, Chaka Khan, Gerald Levert, Joe Messina, Joan Osborne, Meshell NdegéOcello, Earl Van Dyke, Andre Braugher (Narrator); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Sandy Passman/Allan Slutsky/Paul Justman; Artisan; 2002)
“The documentary makes no waves and tries to be as upbeat as the musicians it tells about.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A mildly pleasing documentary that plays as a well-deserved tribute to the unrecognized studio musicians affectionately known as the Funk Brothers, who were the soul behind the Motown sound. They backed up such notable musical figures as the Supremes, the Temptations, Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, the Four Tops and Stevie Wonder. The Funk Brothers, the documentary informs us, performed on more #1 records than the Beatles, the Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley combined.
Motown was started in 1959 by Berry Gordy in a Detroit basement garage as a means of breaking away from the so-called “race music” and into the rock ‘n’ roll mainstream. He recruited from the local bars and beyond a multiracial mix of jazz musicians and R&B musicians. The musicians seemed exploited as they worked long hours 7 days a week in the company’s small recording studio (nicknamed “the snakepit”). In 1970, without a warning, Gordy unofficially took his Motown label and deserted the musicians for Los Angeles, virtually ending their dream since they couldn’t adjust to the different location. Everyone interviewed was too cautious to mention what exactly that dream was, but there were no harsh words expressed against anyone. The musicians seem to be saying that the music was the thing and they just liked playing no matter what, which I assume meant that their only dream was to keep playing the music they loved.
Paul Justman directs this earnest documentary telling about the love the elite musicians who made up the membership of the Funk Brothers still have for the Motown experience, as they frankly speak with affection about it forty-one years later. The documentary caught them in casual interviews and interspersed archival footage of those deceased, as the Funk Brothers reunite in Detroit after three decades of not playing together to perform together in concert one more time. The documentary is both informative and entertaining. Also, the Funk Brothers are really nice guys without big heads or bugged with racial bias, as these unassuming, unsung musicians give off good vibes making it possible for the viewer to unconditionally root for them. How interested you are in this documentary, depends on your musical taste. If you are a fan of soul music, Marvin Gaye, or Smokey Robinson, then you should be very pleased with it. For those unfamiliar with the music, this is a good intro and chance to sample the music.
The company’s nickname was “Hitsville, U.S.A,” as that name was earned through national hits such as Cloud Nine, Jimmy Mack, What’s Going On, and Stop in the Name of Love.
What the documentary didn’t do is try anything innovative in its filmmaking. The uninteresting camera and traditional but safe way of telling its story, left the documentary looking like many others. It never reached the excited frenzy of say a Buena Vista Social Club, one that covers the same ground in its attempt to gain recognition for its unsung musicians.
The music speaks for itself, but the documentary to its credit allows the musicians their own leisurely pace in telling their stories. The reward is that you hear in a friendly conversational tone what it was like for them to play with some great musicians, their funky stories about each other, and their friendship which crossed racial boundaries. Joe Hunter, a keyboardist, has that special look in his eye of one who enjoyed being with the Funk Brothers, as he takes us through the early years of Motown along with vibes and percussionist Jack Ashford. Ashford tells a self-deprecating story about his first meeting with Marvin Gaye, of how he only thought the music world revolved around the jazz great Miles. Hunter tells about working with fellow pianist Johnny Griffith (he died just after the concert was made), whom Hunter told “Just play what you want to play. They don’t know what they’re listening to anyway. If it’s too much they’ll let you know.”
Motown features James Jamerson, their troubled genius bass player, whom they consider the best in the world. He died in 1983 at age 45, after fighting his alcohol addiction and his inner demons. The Funk Brothers were named by their now deceased drummer Benny ‘Papa Zita’ Benjamin, who created his unique style of drumming that became the signature beat for the Motown sound. Earl Van Dyke was singled out for how he thumped the hell out of the piano, and how he became the master of style in Motown’s later years. Robert White, the guitarist who played the magnificent opening riff of the Temptations’ “My Girl” without receiving any credit. White almost mentions to a waiter in an LA restaurant that was him playing the song heard, but checks himself in time and nonchalantly accepts his fate. Each of the Funk Brothers gets a little recognition and a story told about them. What remains clear after the music stops, is that these musicians were having a love affair with their music and really enjoyed each other’s company. That’s what counted most for them, as big money and fame eluded them.
The documentary makes no waves and tries to be as upbeat as the musicians it tells about. In that harmonious aim, it was right on the money. What it left out about Berry Gordy might be a project for another filmmaker, someone with more probing aims. This documentary, if it’s to be faulted, it’s for lacking in freshness and perceptions, and, also, by having the modern performers match up with the old timers it lost some of the magic of the Motown music. The film should have just stuck to telling about the Funk Brothers and it should have been more sharply pointed if it wanted this documentary to get some recognition other than being viewed as a “feel good” piece. Also, its chronological history of Motown was confusing, as interviews and events were given no significance in importance and everything seemed to run together. For someone like myself, who is not a big fan of the music, I found it hard to follow and keep track of events and personalities. Yet, it was still an enjoyable experience.
REVIEWED ON 12/9/2002 GRADE: C +
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
© ALL RIGHTS RESERVED DENNIS SCHWARTZ