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Standing in the Shadows of Motown (PG)



Review by: Simon Bell | Rating: Two

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Dinner With The Funk Brothers; 'The Ones That Didn't Make It' featurette; 'At Long Last Glory' featurette; Multi angle jam sessions; Funk video biographies; Trailer.

THE year: 1959. The place: Detroit, Michigan, and music-maker/ entrepreneur, Berry Gordy, is herding up the cream of the city’s bustling jazz and blues scene for his brand new enterprise: Motown Records.

Over the next decade and a half, the narrator informs us, these men will come to be known as 'The Funk Brothers', and will notch up more Number One hits than the combined chart-topping powerhouse of Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys.

Spool forward to a wintry night in the Motor City of the Year 2000, and you have (almost) the same group of men, gathered to reminisce about their varying degrees of musical genius, shared good times and, ultimately, profound sense of lost glory.

In between, of course, is the story of these truly remarkable artists and how they spurned dancefloor smash after dancefloor smash, year upon year, until the record company bosses upped sticks and fled to L.A., in 1972.

‘Standing in the Shadows…’ comes from the book of the same name by Alan ‘Dr Licks’ Slutsky (who, himself, is credited as producer/writer and appears with guitar in hand throughout the piece) and looks to have been inspired by Wim Wenders’ ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ (1999). Maybe not.

But, similarly, we’re given a collective of unheralded musicians – once at the very forefront of their genre – who seem to have passed into old age and, in some cases, death, without the riches and global appreciation they undoubtedly deserve.

In fact, a telling sequence near the beginning of the film shows just how anonymous the members of Hitsville’s house band really are: Bouncing from one unsuspecting customer to another, the camera meanders through a record shop soliciting views on favourite Motown performers and songs.

But when the inquisitor asks for the names of backing musicians, the response ranges from total bewilderment to pleasantly surprised acknowledgement of utter ignorance.

Director, Paul Justman, follows this with the intercutting of warm and humorous anecdote, archive film and stills, musical demo – and even dramatic flashback reconstruction - with up-to-date footage of the band, plus guests, rehearsing for their reunion gig.

The result is phenomenal: a poignant and affectionate, powerful and engaging, close-up that makes you realize there was more to the Detroit dream factory than the glamorous front-line force of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross et al.

But although the Funk Bro cats can trade grooves and licks like they were born to, Justman makes sure the main player of his film is The Motown Sound: that distinctive drumbeat, those instantly recognisable basslines, the gobsmacking song titles…

“I’ve waited my whole life for this moment and finally it’s here,” says percussionist, Jack Ashford, tearfully.

From the first refrains of (Love is Like a) Heatwave, that more or less opens the documentary, to the closing bars of Chaka Khan & Montell Jordan’s fantastic interpretation of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough at its back end, you get the hunch Motown’s most dedicated diehards may share the sentiment.

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