Behind the hits

By Andrew Ross

You’ve probably never heard of the Funk Brothers–very few people have–but it’s virtually guaranteed that you’ve heard their work. They were the Detroit studio band for Motown Records from 1959-1970, and they played and created the music on every Motown record from that era. In the process, they played on more number one records than the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, and Elvis Presley combined–82 hit songs in all. During their 11 years together, they served as the musical backdrop for such acts as Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Paul Justman’s documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown tells their story.

Justman’s background as a music video director is evident in the film, which seamlessly combines old interviews, new interviews, re-enactments, old performances, and archival footage of the band standing beside or behind the famous singers they worked with. The film also includes several numbers from a recent performance by the band–joined by singers Chaka Khan, Bootsy Collins, Joan Osborne, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Ben Harper, among others. Andre Braugher (of Homicide: Life on the Street fame) does a great job as narrator, presenting the information without stealing the spotlight from the subjects. Some of the singers who perform in the film also appear in discussions with the band, but none impress like Ndegeocello. Her perceptive and well-informed questions belie an extensive knowledge of music history and a sharp historical imagination.

While the film stands for itself as a documentary, it is clear that this movie is really about winning some recognition for the 13 members of the band, only seven of whom are still alive. The movie indicates that they were financially rewarded for their work at the time, but were never given credit for their extensive and significant artistic contributions. While it might seem too late for these musicians to become famous, the experience of Buena Vista Social Club members such as Compay Segundo would seem to indicate that a documentary film actually can spark enough public interest to make one’s name known.


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