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Film review: Standing in the Shadows of Motown

Published: Friday, Dec. 20 2002 8:02 a.m. MST

"Standing in the Shadows of Motown" tells you all you need to know during its opening scrawl: the Funk Brothers were "the greatest hits machine in the history of pop music."

Of course, given that so few people — which includes a lot of so-called music lovers — are aware of the Funk Brothers, the documentary can hardly be termed redundant or unnecessary.

In fact, if anything, the film is doing something of a public service — shedding light on a group of extremely talented musicians who might otherwise go unnoticed and underappreciated by music fans.

Obviously, the film's title refers to the band, which provided the instrumental performances for virtually all of Motown's biggest hits, including "Reach Out (I'll Be There)," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Heat Wave," and which supported Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, among others.

"Standing in the Shadows of Motown" looks at the careers of each of the Funk Brothers and features interviews with surviving members, including keyboardist Joe Hunter, drummer Uriel Jones and bassist Bob Babbitt, who had the unenviable position of replacing late group founder and musical legend James Jamerson.

For many, the selling point of the movie will be the footage of musical performances by the group — some archival pieces, but also some contemporary performances of their greatest hits, with contributions from such artists as Joan Osborne, Gerald Levert (a scintillating version of "Reach Out"), Ben Harper ("Ain't Too Proud to Beg") and Chaka Khan.

But the background material is equally fascinating and just as watchable. Producer Allan Slutsky (whose book of the same name inspired the film) took more than 15 years to compile the material.

And it's clearly a labor of love (despite Paul Justman receiving the directing credit and two others being billed as screenwriters, the credit could go to Slutsky).

"Standing in the Shadows of Motown" is rated PG for vulgarity (some questionable humor and references to strip clubs), violence (archival footage of Vietnam War action) and brief references to drug abuse. Running time: 108 minutes.


E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com

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