Standing In The Shadows of Motown

Movie Review by Stephen Doyle

Starring: Richard ‘Pistol’ Allen, Jack Ashford, Bob Babbitt, Benny ‘Papa Zita’ Benjamin

Director: Paul Justman

STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN – the point of this documentary film is to give Motown’s great unsung musical heroes their belated tribute. Throughout the sixties and seventies the Funk Brothers, a large collection of virtuoso performers, performed on more hit records than Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys combined, as the film proudly boasts. Yet who has heard of them? This film sets out to reveal the stories behind the members of the group and behind some of their famous songs, which include What’s Going On?, My Girl, Grapevine and Dancing in the Streets. An extra coup is that all the surviving Funk Brothers are reunited and play together again for the first time in decades. Yes, it is all reminiscent of Wim Wenders’ BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB and the good news is that if you enjoyed that film, there is no reason why you won’t enjoy this one.

I admit that going into the auditorium to watch this movie, Motown was not my preferred style of music, and leaving the auditorium two hours later, it still wasn’t, yet this film is perfectly enjoyable no matter what your tastes. It is filled with rich anecdotes about Motown music and it’s artists, which are in turn humorous and poignant. For example, one of the drummers relates the theories that music journalists would produce to explain Motown’s unique sound. They would say it was down to the shape of the recording studio, the wood used in the floorboards or even the food served to the musicians. In fact every conceivable factor got a mention except for the musicians themselves – the Funk Brothers! This anecdote, though perhaps not entirely true, serves as a good example of the way the Funk Brothers were undeservedly ignored throughout the era by music fans and music critics alike.

Luckily, most of the musicians interviewed come across as charismatic and likable. The film is made up of such interviews, interspersed with enthusiastic new renditions of some of the funk brothers’ hits performed by contemporary singing stars (such as Joan Osborne, Chaka Khan and Bootsy Collins) with the Funk Brothers themselves performing backing.

A definite recommendation to fans of Motown and seventies pop music, otherwise I would wait until it’s shown on TV in a year or so.

4 out of 6 stars