Standing In The Shadows Of Motown


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

For those who remember the Sixties as grown, not wild, will find this film unbearably moving. Here is the heart of Motown, still beating, after Berry Gordy tore out its roots and replanted them in California, where everything changed and some things died and the spirit of Detroit became a distant memory.

No longer. Paul Justman's exhilarating documentary locks into that memory and finds the musicians who called themselves The Funk Brothers and discovers what happened in The Snake Pit, where songs like Stop In The Name Of Love and Aint No Mountain High Enough were put together in an hour. It is the story of unheralded genius, because behind those immortal hits, fronted by The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Martha Reeves, was a band that created the sound and it is the sound that remains unique and innovative, even today. "The dance floors of the world didn't stand a chance," the narrator Andre Braugher reminds us.

When the idea for Motown Records was a glimmer in the recesses of Gordy's imagination, he collected a group of jazz men together and brought them to his house in Detroit and led them into the cellar, which had crude recording equipment and an earth floor - only the piano stood on planks. This became known as The Snake Pit.

Not all The Funk Brothers are still alive. James Jamerson, considered to be a bass player of exceptional originality ("He put music to everything that had life"), went to Los Angeles when the company moved, but couldn't fit into the West Coast jive and started drinking. Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin brought the backbeat to the early Motown hits. He was a drummer from Alabama, who overdosed on drugs. Earl Van Dyke played what they called "guerrilla piano" and became a huge influence to the sound on such classics as For Once In My Life and My Guy. In his later years, he taught music in the Detroit state schools.

Justman's film not only recreates the songs with modern singers, such as Joan Osborne, Ben Harper and Meshell Ndegeocello, which are beautiful renditions, backed by the surviving Funk Brothers, all remarkably fit and able in their sixties and seventies, but allows the story to come through in conversation and reminiscence. Nobody knew who these people were, because nobody thought about how the music was made. All they heard was Smokey or Diana or Stevie interpreting someone else's lyrics and for decades The Funk Brothers were unknown, far more so than the "lost" musicians who came together for The Buena Vista Social Club.

"Their sound was America's introduction to soul music, which gave people such hope," Harper says. Coming from R&B and jazz, their contribution was on a scale of sophistication and creativity far removed from ordinary pop songs. The first time that they were given any credit on a record was with Marvin Gaye's inimitable What's Going On? and that was a long way down the line. Why did they stick together, literally in the shadows, for all those years? "We listened to each other," 75-year-old guitarist Joe Messina explains. "We liked each other." Black or white, no difference. The music was the motivation and remains so.

The film's finale covers the opening of a commemorative concert in Detroit, when The Funk Brothers take their places on stage, carrying blown up cut-out photographs of Jamerson and Benjamin and the others who "are here in spirit.". As they begin to play and Osborne walks out to sing the first number, you know you are in the presence of greatness.

Reviewed on: 24 Jul 2003
Share this with others on...
Standing In The Shadows Of Motown packshot
Story of the band that backed the Motown hits.
Amazon link

Director: Paul Justman

Writer: Walter Dallas, Ntozake Shange

Starring: Jack Ashford, Bob Babbitt, Johnny Griffith, Joe Hunter, Uriel Jones, Joe Messina, Eddie Willis, Joan Osborne, Gerald Levert, Meshell Ndegeocello, Bootsy Collins, Ben Harper, Chaka Khan, Montell Jordan

Year: 2002

Runtime: 108 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US


Search database:

If you like this, try:

The Wrecking Crew