Standing in the Shadow of Motown

While the likes of Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and many other fantastic artists from Motown Records rose to stardom with classic hits, many of the people who played on the albums remained in the background. The Funk Brothers, as they were known, were the Motown Records house band, and played on many of the songs that people think about when they think of the 1960s. The new film Standing in the Shadows of Motown claims that the Funk Brothers played on more #1 hits and the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, and Elvis Presley combined. Technically yes, but that is beside the point. This movie is a celebration of the art of making music, and the ebullient feeling that arises from it easily translates from the screen to the audience.

The Funk Brothers only recently got their due. This film is based on a book of the same name by Alan Slutsky, and much of the footage comes from a reunion concert held a couple of years ago, that used contemporary singers like Joan Osborne, Gerald Levert, Me'Shell NdegeOcello, Chaka Khan, and Montell Jordan combined with the Funk Brothers in recreating many of the songs that defined Motown. Interspersed amongst the concert footage are clips of the Funk Brothers reminiscing about their experiences. The first that emerges from their anecdotes is that all of them are consummate professionals that thoroughly enjoy the work that they're doing. They liked their work so much that after the recording sessions they would run off to other recording sessions or back to the clubs whence they were handpicked.

Not only are they highly adept, but they are some of the most affable men ever in a documentary. Bringing them together brings back a flood of memories, all of which they more than happily relate to the viewer. There isn't a lot of substance to these stories, but they are the sort of small gems that are nice to know and help to flesh out historic personalities and round out some of these singers and groups more as people. They also take the time to describe how some of Motown's songs came about, and the combination of them playing and explaining the development is something to watch. The only misstep by director Paul Justman (Heavy Metal Pioneers, Let the Good Times Roll) is to recreate some of the stories with actors. With narration from Andre Braugher (Duets, Frequency) that begins stilted but becomes more natural as the movie progresses, and plenty of concert footage, Standing in the Shadows of Motown finally gives the Funk Brothers the recognition they deserve.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good.
1 hour, 48 minutes, Rated PG for language and thematic elements.

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