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Standing in the Shadows of Motown

The Funk Brothers Finally Get Theirs

Sure you like Motown, you say, meaning you recognize the names of the people who sang the lyrics. Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson. But unless you're a die-hard fan of the Motown sound, you probably can't name one of the actual musicians - the people who play the instruments, I mean - who cranked out hit after hit after hit. The guys who laid down the beats, the hooks, the bass lines. Even that snaky tambourine sound that so ominously begins the classic "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" - that wasn't just some Marvin Gaye groupie thrown a musical bone, it was Jack "Black Jack" Ashford. Name doesn't sound familiar? That's because for the most part the musicians were passed over, left unheralded.

They called themselves the Funk Brothers. Uriel Jones. Richard "Pistol" Allen, Bob Babbit, Eddie Willis. Joe Messina. Eddie "Chank" Willis. Benny "Papa Zita" Benjamin. Eddie "Bongo" Brown. Do you recognize any of these names? These are just some of the members of a crew that ran deep, very deep, with talent and drive.

Standing in the Shadow of Motown is a documentary by Paul Justman, a veteran of the music scene. It's based on the book of the same name by Allan "Dr. Licks" Slutsky, a Motown musician and scholar. The film sets out to give credit where credit is due, and it hits its mark. The Funk Brothers manufactured, the film tells us, more Number One hits than Elvis, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Stones combined. Every recognizable Motown tune is attributable to this crew, who worked around the clock in a small studio affectionately known as the Snakepit.

This is a documentary first and foremost. Andre Braugher narrates the film with a smooth set of vocals. However, as an added treat the surviving Funk Brothers got together and played a bunch of the old Motown hits just for this film. Featured on lead vocals are names like Joan Osborne, Ben Harper, Bootsy Collins, Chaka Kahn, and Meshell Ndegeocello. And the songs really connect. At several points the audience seemed like a giant kelp bed, heads nodding and swaying back and forth with the musical tide.

The Funk Brothers made music in a formative period of time not only for music but for civil rights as well, and the film does a fairly good job of setting historical context. There are also some funny vignettes told by the remaining Funk Brothers about the way it was and about the antics they all got into. It's an entertaining movie, and in the end it feels like the forgotten heroes of Motown have finally made the big time. The Funk Brothers are a secret no longer.

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Standing in the Shadows of Motown
PG
1 hour 48 minutes

Joe Messina
Johnny Griffith
Joe Hunter
Bob Babbitt
Richard "Pistol" Allen