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Is there anyone within range of a radio tower who hasn't tapped their feet to a classic Motown tune? Heard It Through the Grapevine, Heatwave, My Girl-the list seems endless. Hit after hit was created in the least likely of places-a renovated garage in the Motor City.
But who were the real Motown artists? If you're about to say Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, or The Temptation you'll only get half marks. The real question asked within this documentary, is "Who is playing all those instruments on My Girl?" The Temptations (and all those other Motown greats) were vocalists-few of the Motown headliners were musicians.
The answer is The Funk Brothers. Between 1959 and 1972, they were the unknown group of session musicians that strummed, beat, and even arranged those incredible harmonies and intricate guitar tracks that have become "The Motown Sound." Unaccredited on any recordings, they were left behind when the company moved from Detroit to the west coast, to live out their lives in obscurity until now.
Author Alan Slutsky brought their story to light. His 1991 book was heralded by Rolling Stone magazine, and helped to convince Slutsky's filmmaking friend Paul Justman that the subject was worthy of a major documentary project.
Interviewing members of the group over the past decade, Justman has created a musical documentary with a plot that rivals the best underdog drama. After years of being separated, the men are reunited in the tiny recording studio where musical history once took place on a weekly basis. Stories and anecdotes begin to pour out in between moments of musical ecstasy as we are treated to hearing The Funk Brothers play some of the biggest Motown hits in a concert venue recorded with the latest sound technology. Be prepared to turn up the home theater!
The more you get to know about this group of humble musician, the more you can't help being amazed. Many of the tracks they played on were arranged in jam session fashion an hour before the actual take was recorded. As opposed to the intricate multi-track recording done today, this was true spontaneous creativity and answers the question of how these technically deficient records managed to have so much life.
The only concerns for sharing this long-overdue story with your family are the inclusion of a few mild profanities, talk of drug use and the devastating consequences it leads to, and a short segment discussing an exotic dancer (with a couple of still photographs showing her scantily clad body). If you have a lover of pop, rap, or good 'ol rock-'n-roll in your home, this would be a great lesson in helping young people understand the roots of the sounds they listen to today.
Standing in the Shadows of Motown is rated PG:
Cast: Funk Brothers