INVISIBLE BUT EVERYWHERE 

The producers of Standing in the Shadows of Motown have two things going for them: First, the success of Buena Vista Social Club has convinced moviegoers that they can be entertained by a documentary about obscure musicians. Second, after seeing the film, audiences should find it inconceivable that they ever imagined its subjects to be obscure.

That's because the Funk Brothers, a group of nearly anonymous session musicians who backed up Motown's star singers, made more number one records than the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and Elvis Presley combined.

Casual music fans might suggest these guys were simply in the right place at the right time; that because they were able to work for so many stars - Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, et cetera - their Top 40 status was assured. But Standing goes a long way toward disproving that idea. In fact, arguing that these players - who have been known for 30 years only to obsessive music nerds - were largely responsible for Motown's success is the film's entire goal, which it achieves in a few different ways.

First, the doc provides a detailed (but never dull) assessment of the ingredients of Motown's signature sound, profiling the musicians by section. It may seem odd to direct a viewer's attention toward, say, a tambourine player, but once you have met Jack Ashford and focused for a moment on his contributions, you will realize that some of your favorite songs simply wouldn't exist without him. With a thoroughness inspired by the fact that these men rarely saw their names on the sleeves of the records they made, the filmmakers shine the spotlight on all the group's core members, both those who are still around to be interviewed and those who have long since passed away.

The filmmakers also work to bring this unseen group to life, in staged recreations of some of the bandmates' favorite anecdotes. This is unnecessary, really - these men are not lacking for charisma, and watching them tell stories is every bit as entertaining as seeing the stories re-enacted by young actors.

Interspersed between all the documentary material is footage from a recent event in which surviving Funk Brothers performed with current stars fronting the band. Some of these appearances are a real treat: hearing Me'Shell NdegéOcello wrap her voice around "You've Really Got a Hold On Me," or seeing Bootsy Collins flip out to "Do You Love Me." In other cases, as when Chaka Khan tries to live up to Marvin Gaye on "What's Going On," you feel for singers who bit off more than they could chew.

But even the less successful renditions point out something interesting: These performances don't sound like covers of famous songs, they sound like the real thing. As one interviewee puts it in the film, once the Funk Brothers were in the studio, "You coulda had Deputy Dawg singin' on it," and it would be a hit.

The film's producer Allan Slutsky (whose celebrated book is the basis of the film) says that, when contemporary star Gerald Levert was booked for this concert, he had no idea who his backing musicians were; he thought it was just a nostalgia show. When the rehearsal started, though, he immediately knew that the men behind him were the original musicians. As he told Slutsky, nobody else could sound quite like that. Standing in the Shadows of Motown will convince you of the same thing.


More by John DeFore

Calendar

Newsletters

Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.