..

STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  The Funk Brothers
Director:  Paul Justman
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, DTS 6.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Artisan
Length:  110 minutes
Release Date:  April 22, 2003

Film ***1/2

Several years ago, I came across an ad for a book called Standing in the Shadow of Motown, whose title of course was a modification of the Motown classic "Standing in the Shadow of Love."  This film was inspired by this incredible book.  It was a combination biography and music collection which told the life story of bassist James Jamerson and featured many of his intricate yet soulful bass lines which powered countless Motown tunes. Like many of the other Motown musicians, he was a true musical genius and probably the first electric bass legend. 

This book also talked at length of the "Funk Brothers", the musicians who made these hits happen.  They have played on more hits than the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Elvis COMBINED.  I am sure you can name many of the tunes, but can you name any of the musicians that played on them?  Don't feel bad if you can't, most of us---even professional musicians---can't either.  This movie will hopefully change that.  The double DVD is a treasure of American music.  

Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, dreamed of music that bridged the gap between "race" R & B which was too raw for most listeners and the new rock 'n roll, which was founded on black music but was clearly only profiting white artists.  While many fine songwriters, arrangers, producers, and singers worked in the legendary Studio A at Hitsville USA in Detroit, it was the band of Funk Brothers playing on these great songs that made them work.

Motown taught the world how to groove.  Without them, there would be no Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and so many other household names. If those artists had recorded with lesser musicians, they would never have been successful because the Detroit Groove would not have been there.  These musicians were paid decently, but studio musicians receive no royalties from the sale of recordings they play on, nor do they get any pension, and rarely in those days were they even credited on the albums.

While James Jamerson has passed on, his son is here to tell his story and even show his father's famous instruments.  Fortunately many of the other Funk Brothers are alive and well.  The performance at the end of the DVD introduces each musician, and since so many have passed on, the survivors bring their portraits onstage and place each one on a stand, since they are all still there in spirit.

One of the best tunes is Joan Osborne (yes, the slim white girl) rocking out on "Heat Wave," and she pushes her voice (and the band) to the limit with her rendition of “Where Do Broken Hearts Go.”  Just as the new Beatles Anthology features many immortal songs in glorious DTS, the new performances of the Motown classics are in DTS also.   Don't forget that when the Beatles came to America, they had many Motown classics in their repertoire such as "Please Mr. Postman" and “You Really Got a Hold On Me.”    The Rolling Stones also did songs such as "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," and of course John Entwistle of The Who would have been nothing without his Motown foundation.

I could only give the film three and a half stars because while the performances are great and the table chat is cool, it is not gripping the way that The Complete Beatles was.  I wish they had someone shown how the tracks were built the way that many of the recently released.  While the songs do pretty much speak for themselves, the table talk and reminiscing gets old very fast for me.  I don't care who ate what at some gig, I wanted to learn how they put these grooves together!   Although most of it was instinctive talent anyway, so that is a puzzle no one may be able to answer.

One especially poignant moment sums up the whole movie, though.  Bob Babbitt, who had the unenviable task of replacing the great James Jamerson on bass, was asked how it felt to be a white musician at Motown in the late 1960s amid riots in Detroit, or whether he was ever made to felt inferior because of his race or the legend whose shoes he was trying to fill.  Viewing of this film proves how good Babbitt is, but instead of being defensive, he actually teared up when he recalled the long hours with these great musicians who honored him by calling him a brother, when they could have easily resented him.   This just goes to show that music truly is the universal language, which shatters all barriers---racial, cultural, and generational.  There was no discrimination against white musicians among the Funk Brothers; a problem Miles Davis once called “Crow Jim.”  Davis was also occasionally criticized for hiring white musicians for his mostly black bands and resented this racism.   The musicians' glory years and frustrations all come to life here.

Video ***

It must not have been easy to seamlessly edit the live concert footage, old interview footage, new interview footage, and newly-filmed re-enactments.  This anamorphic widescreen transfer is an effort worthy of the subject matter.  These discs definitely have the coolest menu I have ever seen, which makes you feel like you are entering a club or studio.

Audio ****

DTS lives! The newly recorded tracks are especially good.  Some have criticized the performances as "not worthy."  Oh, please!  Joan Osborne soars on “Heat Wave”.  You would never know she was white unless you watched it.   They don't top the originals, but who can top Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson doing their original hits.  The narration is also excellent.

Features ****

Where do I begin?  There are jam sessions and a virtual recording studio includes a version of the popular Sonic Foundry ACID software, an “Xpress” version which is basically a demo-only version.   After installing, you can listen to a funk brothers clip in the tracks window, a nice introduction to hard disc music editing.  You cannot do a whole lot without buying an upgrade, but still a very original feature.  The director/producer commentaries are very interesting and add depth to an already deep story.  There are some deleted scenes you won't miss much, and the three BMW films: Beat the Devil, Hostage, Ticker detract from the other great features such as the featurettes “The Ones that Didn't Make it” and “At Long Last, Glory” which shows them going to the film's premiere.

Summary:

Standing in the Shadows of Motown is a story long overdue to be told about some of the best popular music produced in America.   The Funk Brothers will live forever in their music.