Standing in the Shadows of Motown, 108 mins, rated G, open in cinemas 30 January 2003

Rated – HOT! HOT! HOT!

Who played the backing music for The Supremes?  And for The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson (no, it wasn’t The Miracles), Gladys Knight (no, not The Pips), and scores of other classic Motown stars of the 60s?

It was a group of 13 session musicians who became known, to the privileged few, as The Funk Brothers.  They worked for Berry Gordy’s Motown Records, in the studio known as “Hitsville USA.”  They gave us the riffs, licks and drum fills that millions still thrill to.  But few people know their names.

This documentary is a sheer delight.  It is based on the award-winning book by Allan “Dr Licks” Slutsky, and was filmed on location in Detroit.  Its Director is Paul Justman, the veteran music-video and music-documentary maker.  He’s made films about The Doors, James Brown, The Neville Brothers and Deep Purple, and his experience shows:  this is a very slick film.  Nearly all of it is shot on 35mm, so it looks just beautiful.

Care has been taken with the story too.  We see the real-life locations where the Funk Brothers played and hung out: from Hitsville’s Studio A (also affectionately known as “the Snake Pit”), to the Clubs where they played jazz all night long (with great names like “The 20 Grand” and “Chit Chat”).

Their story is played out against the volatile 1960s.  There were hard times, drug and alcohol addiction, civil unrest and race riots.  But there was always the music.

We see vintage film footage and photographs of the old days, and we learn that of the 13, 6 have passed away, some in tragic circumstances.  One, Benny Benjamin, was said to be the greatest bass player of all time:  he could play virtuoso bass while lying on his back, drunk (as he did on Marvin Gaye’s hit “What’s Going On”).

Best of all, we see the Funk Brothers play a reunion concert at Detroit’s Royal Oak Music Theatre.  They play with contemporary performers such as Ben Harper, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Bootsy Collins and Chaka Khan.  The music is fresh and powerful - it’s impossible to sit still.

One curious aspect of the film is its failure to recognise the composers of the classic Motown hits.  But perhaps that’s deliberate.  After all, as the film shows, the Funk Brothers are superb musicians who never got the glory they deserved. Standing in the Shadows of Motown is a long overdue tribute.  And it’s a joy to see and hear.

© Michèle M Asprey 2003

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