Mark Reviews Movies

STANDING IN THE SHADOWS OF MOTOWN

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Paul Justman

MPAA Rating:  (for language and thematic elements)

Running Time: 1:48

Release Date: 11/15/02


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Review by Mark Dujsik

They started off as jazz and blues musicians playing around clubs in Detroit. Then Berry Gordy came along and brought them all together to form the accompanying band for a new kind of sound. Thirteen of the best and most talented musicians in their field joined to form the Funk Brothers and create some of the most memorable songs of the era. As a relative layman in the music field, it’s hard to describe what Motown music is; it’s a sort of combination of the spirit of improvisational jazz, the rhythm of rock and roll, and a pleasant vocal harmony. I may not possess the ability to accurately describe it, but I know what I like. Despite the fact that the music is what separates Motown from other similar musical genres, the vocalists have always received the whole of the recognition. Standing in the Shadows of Motown is about the musicians—the driving force of the entire repertoire of Motown’s Detroit period—and the way in which they were and still are pushed into the shadows of music history.

Director Paul Justman takes the event of a reunion concert to meet and chat with the eight living members of the Funk Brothers. Over the course of the film, Justman presents a concise history of Motown and the tumultuous years in which it reigned. Lots of archival footage and photographs show us the way things were, although there is surprisingly very little past concert footage. A couple of humorous anecdotes are dramatized, including a compactly organized road trip with some rather unpleasant smells. A few numbers from the reunion concert are shown, reminding us just how entertaining the music is (not that we really need a reintroduction) and allowing us the opportunity to listen more closely to music in the background.  In a bit of irony, we note that the band is still secondary in terms of presentation, although with the new knowledge of their contribution, we understand that they are primary in effort. Even with a concert dedicated to the band, the singers still stick out. I guess it just comes with the territory. The interviews help point out their contributions to the music and unique aspects of the way in which they play, like the way in which the late drummer William "Benny" Benjamin invented different, more colorful pickups or how the late James Jamerson played the bass with one finger—a seemingly impossible task to his friends.

The remaining band members are interesting subjects. They realize the irony of their situation and always have. At one point, someone recalls how guitarist Robert White heard his famous intro riff to "My Girl" in a restaurant but felt too embarrassed or unworthy to mention to anyone that he was the one who played it. He felt, his band mate recalls, like he was "on the outside looking in," while in all respect to his work, it should have been the other way around. It seems that most of these men have music in their blood. Some made makeshift instruments as children, like Jamerson, whose son recalls how his father told him about connecting a rubber band and a stick and sticking it into an ant hole "to make the ants dance." Others just knew how to play naturally. Pianist Joe Hunter recalls the first time he sat at his mother’s piano and how the piano keys seemed to play on their own—he was just putting his fingers in the gaps. There’s more than irony to this story, though, and the movie gives due respect to the deceased of the band. Unfortunately, that also means glossing over the more unpleasant aspects of some of their lives. There’s constant reference to Jamerson’s tortured existence but never any kind of elaboration in the way of allowing us to understand him. The same goes for Benjamin, whose drug problem is all but ignored until the mention of his death.

Is this necessarily a fault? The film manages to convey the impact of these musicians without airing out dirty laundry, but I wonder how much more affecting the film would have been if Justman had moved beyond the creative output of the studio and into these people’s lives. It’s almost too respectful in this manner, but that doesn’t stop the film from succeeding in what it sets out to do. Standing in the Shadows of Motown is a loving tribute to the forgotten legends of Motown. The film ends with a great and touching moment in which each member of the band—living and dead—is introduced, and you can’t help but think that people will definitely remember the Funk Brothers now.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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