Standing In The Shadows Of Motown

on November 15, 2002 by Paul Clinton
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"Standing in the Shadows of Motown" is a worthy tribute documentary that digs up recognition for the musicians who backed up Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and other Motown legends. This coterie of jazz, blues and funk players crafted the sounds behind the words of "Heat Wave," "What's Goin' On" and a string of other chart-toppers created in the Detroit studio complex known as "Hitsville" in the 1950s.

Writer Allan Slutsky, who is also a fairly acclaimed guitarist, and director Paul Justman round up the living members of the Funk Brothers, as they were known, to recount the inspiration behind the music.

The musicians, mostly men, revisit defunct Detroit nightclubs like the Chit Chat and the 20 Grand, where they developed the musical ideas that became as big a part of the fabric of the music as Gaye's velvety vocals or Martha Reeves' peppy singing style.

Uriel Jones, Eddie Willis, Joe Messina and Bob Babbitt aren't exactly household names, but this documentary underlines their contributions. The survivors also talk about their fellow players who have died since Motown faded from the landscape in the 1970s, including James Jamerson (perhaps the most well-known Funk Brother), Eddie Brown, Earl Van Dyke and Robert White.

Justman and Slutsky open up their movie to the subjects, presenting them in fairly straightforward interviews as they recount funny or touching anecdotes and memories from a vibrant time for music in Detroit. In that way, watching the doc feels a lot like leafing through a dusty scrapbook and warmly remembering good times. Yet the focus is too narrow at times. Justman splices in an archival news clip of Stevie Wonder and briefly interviews Martha Reeves, but we really don't get much perspective from someone outside the group. And many of Justman's black-and-white reenactments (a la Errol Morris) come off as redundant gloss.

The soundtrack is a minor treat. The Funk Brothers return to the famous Studio A to re-record many of the Motown hits with contemporary singers. They get quality performances from Joan Osborne (brilliant and bluesy on "Heat Wave"), Ben Harper (heartbreaking on "I Heard It Through the Grapevine") and Me'Shell NdegeOcello (mellow and funky on "Cloud Nine").

Less effective are Chaka Khan (mumbling her way through "What's Goin' On") and Bootsy Collins (whose feathery pink boa has more flavor than his singing on "Do You Love Me"). Starring Bob Babbitt, Uriel Jones, Chaka Khan, Joe Messina and Joan Osborne. Directed by Paul Justman. Written by Allan Slutsky. Produced by Paul Justman, Allan Slutzky and Sandford Passman. An Artisan release. Documentary. Rated PG for language and thematic elements. Running time: 116 min

Tags: Starring Bob Babbitt, Uriel Jones, Chaka Khan, Joe Messina and Joan Osborne. Directed by Paul Justman. Written by Allan Slutsky, Produced by Paul Justman, Allan Slutzky, Sandford Passman, Artisan, Documentary
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