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Movie Review: Standing in the Shadows of Motown
Paul Justman, Artisan Entertainment
By Timothy Peters
(more articles from this author)
2003-09-09
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Title: Standing in the Shadows of Motown
Director: by Paul Justman
Distribution: Artisan Entertainment
Release Date: November 15, 2002 (North America) / July 25, 2003 (UK)
Inspired by the book, "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" by Allan "DR. LICKS" Slutsky

A famous anecdote of rock history tells how the young Al Kooper, composer of Gary Lewis and the Playboys' "This Diamond Ring," sneaked into a Bob Dylan recording session in 1965 and ended up playing organ on "Like a Rolling Stone." The moral of the story is that for musicians, as for the rest of us mere mortals, just showing up is half the job.

However, the recent documentary film "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" (now out in video and DVD) attempts something much more ambitious. In focusing on the "Funk Brothers," the core group of session musicians who played on the hits (and misses) of Berry Gordy's Detroit-based empire, circa 1959-1972 – the Temptations, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas – "Standing in the Shadows" suggests that these musicians were the real secret to Motown's success. This is the film's central premise, with the corollary notion that their contributions have been tragically overlooked. Indeed, one early scene in the film presents embarrassed record store patrons who are unable, when asked by the off-camera interviewer, to identify the backing musicians for Marvin Gaye or the other Motown artists, as if not being able to name the principal oboist of the Cleveland Symphony belies one's moral or musical seriousness.

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"Standing in the Shadows of Motown" has garnered lots of attention, replete with spin-off tours and NPR interviews. All of this attention has been positive – sentimental, really – and uncritical. By "uncritical" I mean unthinking, and essentially stupid. In its hurry to award credit to the overlooked Funk Brothers, the film substitutes a myth – the myth of the "real heroes" – for the much more complicated and interesting reality that is the life of session musicians and, more broadly, the process by which great popular music is created.

The film means no harm – and, as a film it is formulaic and derivative – but it's a lie. Its lies are many and of varying sizes. For example, narrator Andre Braugher begins by intoning a capsule history of postwar black America and its evolving musical tastes. The viewer soon encounters, however, an embarrassingly large contingent of white musicians among the Funk Brothers, a reality the film acknowledges only when mentioning, briefly, the Detroit riots of 1967-1968. Race aside, why does a film that purports to offer an insider's view of how records are made never mention the terms (or concepts) "arranger," "producer," "songwriter"? Why do the Funk Brothers, who wax poetic over the opening riff of "My Girl," not discuss whose idea the riff was, or what kind of instructions or guidance they received from the producer? Why don't they acknowledge that the riff is a glorified ‘G' chord? How is it that the quintessential Motown songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland is never mentioned? According to their NPR interview with Terry Gross, they told the sessions musicians how to play the accompaniment for their songs.

My point is not to beat up on these largely anonymous and highly talented musicians, but to honor and respect the much more complicated reality behind their lives and behind the creation of great popular art. If the Funk Brothers or their New York equivalents had been hired to play on Velvet Underground records, the entire history of 1970s-1990s rock would have been altered for the worse. Pop music has never been primarily about musicianship, and the performances in "Standing in the Shadows" bear this out: with the exception of Joan Osborne's treatment of "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?," they are all dreadful. None could have been hits without the distinctive voices and shrewd production that characterized Berry Gordy's capitalist empire. Great pop music, from Louis Armstrong to the Chuck Berry to Garth Brooks, almost always involves at least one person who's in it for the money. More precisely, being in it for the money and creativity are not mutually exclusive qualities.

The heroism of the Funk Brothers is that they showed up every day for work, played what they were told to play, and played it well, even as they day-dreamed of jazz. This is the professionalism that characterizes real musicians of all genres. They rarely got solos: that's not their job. The Funk Brothers, by the way, were only the rhythm section of Motown. Nobody in the film calls attention, for example, to the soprano saxophonist who delivers the haunting opening of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?," even though the song is performed in the film, complete with sax intro. Likewise, perhaps the single most liberating moment in the film is a snippet of guitarist Joe Messina – in his pre-Motown days – playing bebop guitar in a 1950s clip from – get this – the Soupy Sales Show. Who knew that Soupy was a jazz hero?

Now there's an idea for a documentary: "Soupy Sales: Behind the Music."


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