Film Reviews: Wednesday, December 26, 2002
Standing in the Shadows of Motown\r\nStarring The Funk Brothers. Directed by Paul Justman. Written by Walter Dallas and Ntozake Shange. Rated PG.
We Wantthe Funk

Motown’s forgotten musicians are reunited, and it feels so good.


In Standing in the Shadows of Motown, author Allan Slutsky points out that the great guitar riffs in rock history are easily identified with the musicians who play them: Keith Richards (“Satisfaction”), George Harrison (“Paperback Writer”), Kurt Cobain (“Come As You Are”). Yet hardly anyone knows who played the riff from The Temptations’ “My Girl,” which is just as recognizable as those. It was Robert White, one of The Funk Brothers, a group of studio musicians hired by Berry Gordy to play backup for singers during the heyday of Motown Records. These 14 musicians, most of them (though not all) African-American, were more than just hired help. They were integral to creating the Motown sound, and they languished in obscurity after Gordy abruptly picked up his operation and moved from Detroit to Los Angeles in the early 1970s. Paul Justman’s documentary does more than track down the group’s surviving members and let them tell their stories. It also documents a concert they put on in Detroit, during which they played cover versions of Motown songs with today’s R&B stars.

Reunited, these old men are brimming with stories about their days in “the snake pit,” the studio where most of those songs were recorded. Keyboardist Joe Hunter chips in an amusing anecdote about a nightclub owner who tried using a gun to get out of paying the musicians, only to find himself facing bandmembers who were packing heat themselves. The living Funk Brothers recall those already gone, some lost to alcohol and drugs like bassist James Jamerson, and others to old age and illness like White. In one poignant moment, bassist Bob Babbitt, who is white, breaks down in tears as he recalls how his black colleagues protected him when race riots in Detroit approached their studio.

The concert footage is immensely enjoyable. Age hasn’t diminished any of the Funk Brothers’ chops, and the present-day singers look properly humbled to be performing in front of them. Gerald Levert kicks things off with a powerhouse version of “Reach Out (I’ll Be There).” Joan Osborne is the picture of bliss as she sings “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave,” while Me’Shell N’Degeocello’s rendition of “Cloud Nine” bubbles with nervous, funkified energy. Ben Harper is an interesting fit with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” — his voice is nowhere as pretty as Marvin Gaye’s, but his steely intensity brings out the song’s high drama. Upstaging all of them is Bootsy Collins, perfectly cast singing “Do You Love Me” and “Cool Jerk,” and infusing the concert with his own eccentric joyousness.

Justman makes one mistake in staging dramatic re-creations of some of the musicians’ stories, with actors in 1960s garb playing them. He should have just let these old guys speak for themselves. However, he makes up for it in the film’s final and most powerful tableau, as a title card reads: “The Funk Brothers played on the following songs,” and an endless cascade of classic titles follows. (“Classic” is the wrong word for these songs. They’re more like old friends.) It brings home the awesome achievement of these musicians.

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