my father good taste, I have always liked Motown and Stax. Not to the extent of being a fan or much more than an occasional listener. Just someone who fancies that style and is very curious to find out more about. So "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" was a rockumentary listed on the agenda for quite a long time.
The premise of the film, based upon the 1989 same title book is as simple as shocking. (Re) discover Motown music, or better said, find out who was behind Hitsville's trademark sounding style. The back-up band of Motown Records: the Funk Brothers. This stunning cast of musicians gathered by the company owner, Berry Gordy Jr. were, as labelled by the film "the greatest hit machine in the history of popular music". Over a spanning period of fourteen years they played the music on more number hits than any other artists on Earth (Beatles, Stones and Elvis included). But history neglected their vital role, leaving them unrecognised.
In "Standing in the Shadows of Motown", director Paul Justman, takes good care in showing this quite surprising story with detail and respect to the musicians. As a matter of fact, aside the archival footage so recurrent on documentaries, the film relies heavily on the opinions and thoughts of the surviving Funk Brothers. We see much of Motown history through their eyes on a pretty exciting trip. Their personal origins, their involvement/recruitment with Gordy Jr., their work at the studio and the creation of some of the label eternal classics, the consequences of period of time they lived (Detroit riots, Vietnam war), as well as the role each played (in that sense, the film is a compelling tribute to stunning bassist James Jamerson, and to a lesser extent to Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin) until the company moved from Detroit to Los Angeles, condemning them to be (mostly) forgotten.
Aside from the more traditional documentary structure, "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" also offers some re-creation scenes and twelve live performances of Motown classics played by the Funk Brothers backing up names like Chaka Khan, Ben Harper, Bootsy Collins, Montell Jordan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne and Gerald Levert. This really helps the film dynamism as provides a more movie. But it also hurts it, as one cannot help but wonder on the need of the low-budget movie scenes, mostly irrelevant, and the live versions of the tunes are really uneven. In one hand (at least to me), Ben Harper does wonders with Marvin Gaye's "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine", while Joan Osborne shines with "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted", but on the other hand Bootsy Collins, Me'Shell Ndegeocello and Chaka Khan ruined their tunes.
In any case, the mere existence of this rockumentary has to be praised and celebrated. Just as the music of the Funk Brothers.