Friday, December 20, 2002

Funk from the trunk

Movie: Standing in the Shadows of Motown

Posted on Fri, Dec 20, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Our Rating: 4.00

Who needs the Buena Vista Social Club when you've got the Funk Brothers, the righteously reunited stars of "Standing in the Shadows of Motown?" Journalistically shallow but knee-deep in the funk, this beguiling documentary testifies that the Brothers, for years the house band at Motown Records, were instrumental (pardon the pun) in creating the soundtrack to a generation. Weaned on jazz and drafted into Berry Gordy's great experiment in black/white crossover, these ace players, we learn, were the uncredited backbone of hits like "My Girl," "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "Heat Wave."

The film (based on producer Allan Slutsky's 1989 book of the same name) was shot during a 2000 reclamation that brought the surviving Funk Brothers back to Detroit for a series of celebratory performances and tours of the old neighborhood. Gathered again at the Hitsville, U.S.A., recording studios -- the fabled subterranean "snake pit" where all the Motown classics were committed to tape -- the Brothers explain what a professional yet passion-drenched process their work was, and how it was influenced by the social change going on around them. Intercut with their recollections is latter-day footage of the group performing with guest vocalists like Bootsy Collins and Ben Harper.

The film has just enough of everything -- re-enactments, archival footage, talking-head interviews -- and the music is simply sublime. Gerald Levert attacks Junior Walker's "Shotgun" as if his life depends upon it, and Joan Osborne wrings the utmost drama from "What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?"

Despite its crusading, revisionist veneer, the movie backs off from seeking the specific details of the Brothers' less-then-stellar treatment at the hands of Motown. (Reportedly, a softball approach was the price of using company property in the movie.) But this film is not a tell-all, anyway; it's a tribute suffused with as many positive vibes as linger in the music itself. (In a particularly telling snippet of commentary, producer Don Was explains that the rock-steady groove produced by a crack unit like the Brothers just plain makes listeners feel good.) As such, the musicians spend a hefty portion of their interview time praising each other's instrumental abilities.

Listening to their tales, you realize that this crew had two attributes rarely seen in the mercenary groups of today: They genuinely admired each other and they played together day and night. I think the two might have had something to do with each other.



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