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Reviewed by Ivana Redwine
"The best kept secret in the history of pop music."
"Standing in the Shadows of Motown" is a documentary that pays tribute to the unheralded group of studio musicians who played behind the likes of the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, and Marvin Gaye during the 1960s. The film was a big hit with critics during its theatrical release, and when I watched it at home recently on DVD, I found it to be one of the very best documentaries I have ever seen. "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" comes as a two-disc DVD set loaded with extras, and I have listed these below.
The documentary focuses on a group of 13 Detroit-based musicians, collectively known as the Funk Brothers, who provided the heart of the instrumental background to all of the following recordings: Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," the Supremes' "Stop! In the Name of Love," the Miracles' "Shop Around," the Temptations' "My Girl," and Jr. Walker & the All Stars' "How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You)." According to the movie, the Funk Brothers "played on more number one hits than the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Elvis, and the Beatles combined, which makes them the greatest hit machine in the history of pop music."
For me, the best thing about "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" was getting to know the eight living Funk Brothers a little bit, and the documentary fills in some information on the five who had already passed on. At one point, the surviving Funk Brothers use the example of "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" to show us the anatomy of the Motown sound by first starting with a drumbeat, then bringing in the bass, next adding guitars, then keyboards, and finally a tambourine. This was the core of the Motown sound, but actual recordings were usually quite elaborate, typically adding background vocalists, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and sometimes French horns, flute, piccolo, violins, violas, and cellos.
The documentary presents the surviving Funk Brothers playing behind different vocalists in new performances of 12 famous Motown hits. I couldn't keep my toes from tapping during Ben Harper's version of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and Gerald Levert's rendition of "Reach Out I'll Be There." Also, Meshell Ndegeocello does a nice job with "You've Really Got a Hold on Me." And I confess that the big finishMontell Jordan and Chaka Khan singing "Ain't No Mountain High Enough"brought tears to my eyes.
"Standing in the Shadows of Motown" wisely concentrates on the story of the Funk Brothers, but one result of this is that it glosses over how Berry Gordy founded Motown and built it into the biggest black-owned business in the United States. In the early 1970s, Gordy abruptly closed the Motown facilities in Detroit. According to the documentary, one day the Funk Brothers came to work at the studio to find a sign on the door stating that the facilities had been relocated to Los Angeles. That was the end of the Funk Brothers, the group that had created the Motown sound, but Motown, the company, continued on, making more money than ever.
I think the best thing about "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" is that it gave me the opportunity to get to know some interesting people, but the movie also provides some insight into the 1960s American scene. The upbeat Motown sound of the early sixties gradually gave way to darker material like "Cloud Nine" and "What's Going On" as the Vietnam War, civil unrest, and the assassination of Martin Luther King wore down Americans' optimism. Still, the documentary shows the spirit of the Funk Brothers to be so irrepressible that I was left with a feeling of hope.
Special Features of the DVDs:
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