Standing in the Shadows of Motown

(Paul Justman, USA, 2002)


There are secret histories of creative collaboration in every field of culture. Popular music, with its often sparse credits on record and CD sleeves, surely hides the highest number of unsung artists.


Standing in the Shadows of Motown is about a special group of session musicians, the Funk Brothers, who provided the musical backbone for dozens of Motown hits throughout the ‘60s.


The well-known stars in this story, from Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross to Marvin Gaye, are given a back seat. Director Paul Justman conjures up for us, through lively interview sessions, the hothouse atmosphere of studio recording, where talented musicians including Joe Hunter, James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin would build a song's essential structure in a few pressure-packed hours.


The success of Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club (1999) looms over many recent music documentaries. This one also hinges on a reunion concert, where the surviving Funk Brothers play alongside younger colleagues, backing such performers as Chaka Khan and Ben Harper.


Frustratingly, Justman sometimes whisks these numbers away mid-stream, as if afraid to attract the dreaded label of ‘concert film’. Many music fans will be awaiting hopeful extensions of this concert footage on the DVD release.


There are other problems in the overall form of the documentary, especially when Justman indulges in superfluous, TV-style dramatic recreations of events that are not always especially dramatic.


But the heart and soul of this film is in the people it presents, and in the glimpses it provides of their musical processes. Justman, working from Allan Slutsky's book of the same name, allows himself the usual predictable reflections on the swiftly changing political landscape of the American ‘60s: civil rights, Vietnam, the counterculture (cue Gaye's “What's Going On” on the soundtrack).


But one touching point rises above the litany of clichés. In its peaceful combination of white and black musicians, the Funk Brothers quietly embodied a utopian dream of racial reconciliation via popular art.

© Adrian Martin January 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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