STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN
Review by Mark Wiechman
The Funk Brothers
Director: Paul Justman
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, DTS 6.1, Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Length: 110 minutes
Release Date: April 22, 2003
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.
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.
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.
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.