Standing in the Shadows of Motown

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/10/05 13:28:01

"Ain't No Mountain High Enough, indeed."
3 stars (Just Average)

As a documentary, “Standing In the Shadows of Motown” isn’t all that great. But as a celebration of music, it’s absolutely incredible. The film tells the story of the Funk Brothers, the unsung studio musicians for Motown who supplied backup on some of the greatest songs of the 20th century.

The film’s flaws are in its documentary side. Narrated by Andre Braugher, “Motown” tells us the history of the Funk Brothers, how they came to become a musical family while recording first in Berry Gordy’s basement, then later at his famed Hitsville, USA studio. The history here isn’t as in-depth as one would like (little more than “Behind the Music” timeline), and director Paul Justman makes the painful error of relying on reenactments to illustrate the stories the Funk Brothers tell. Worse yet, plenty of the film’s “authentic” moments come across as all too stagy, especially a man-on-the-street interview segment that comes off scripted and false. It’s just not something you want to see in a serious documentary.

All of this is easily forgiven, however, as the stories themselves are plenty engaging. Justman should have just turned the cameras on the musicians and walked away; the history they provide is captivating stuff even without the forced set-ups. The Funks discuss everything in their past, from race (pretty much a non-issue as far as they were concerned) to drugs (several Funks threw their lives away) to moving on after Motown (Gordy’s move to California caused the group to essentially break up).

Edited into all of this is the film’s highlight, footage of one of the coolest concerts you’ll ever see. The Funk Brothers reunited in Detroit, performing their most memorable hits with guests supplying the vocals. (This illustrates the point one musician makes early, that anyone could have sung these tunes - it was the Funk Brothers who gave the songs the power known as The Motown Sound.)

The result is a genuine blast. Just look at the list of songs heard here: “Reach Out.” “Heat Wave.” “Do You Love Me.” “Shotgun.” “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg.” “Cool Jerk.” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted.” “Cloud Nine.” “What’s Going On.” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”

Man oh man, that’s like a checklist of some of the best songs ever written. And they’re performed with thrilling verve by the Funks, supported by such guest vocalists as Gerald Levert, Meshell N’Degeocello, Bootsy Collins (!), Ben Harper, Chaka Khan, Montell Jordan, and Joan Osborne, whose rendition of “Broken Hearted” could very well qualify for the short list for Greatest Thing Ever.

(If nothing else, seeing such great performances here helps rescue the songs from the hell they’ve endured, having been co-opted into such terrible commercials for Cool Whip and Radio Shack. We’re taking the music back!)

With such fantastic performances, “Motown” stands as a monument to an unforgettable moment in American music history. This is what great music is all about, people. The documentary may be shaky, but the concert cooks like nobody’s business.

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