“Standing in the Shadows of Motown” documents the career of the Funk Brothers, the unknown band behind all of Motown’s Detroit-era classics. A 10-year labor of love for producer Sandy Passman, the film works on both a human-interest level — focusing on the travails of the band members now finally receiving their well-earned due — and as a slice of Motown’s early history. With distribution through Artisan, pic has a good chance to do some decent theatrical B.O. as well as achieve sales to the usual TV outlets.
In a small studio in the basement of Motown founder Berry Gordy’s home, affectionately named Hitsville USA, the Funk Brothers band helped churn out the sound of legendary Motown artists such as the Supremes, the Temptations and Gladys Knight, backing almost every hit from Motown’s Detroit frame of the 1960s.
Based on Allan Slutsky’s book of the same name, docu combines current interviews with vintage footage of the band at work in the studio playing alongside Motown legends such as Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson and dispensing a few tips to a very “Little” Stevie Wonder.
Most striking is how close-knit the band members were even as both financial security and fame eluded them. Director Paul Justman get all the best dish: the band hiding in a local funeral parlor to take a break from its grueling six-day-a-week recording schedule; illiterate conga player Eddie “Bongo” Brown pretending to intently read the music, when it was really a nudie magazine he was studying; bass player James Jamerson wearing pajamas in the car on out-of-town gigs, since it was the only way he could sleep.
When Motown moved its offices to Los Angeles, it marked the end of the Funk Brothers and, not coincidentally, also the end of Motown’s greatest period of success. But “Standing in the Shadows” is about the euphoria of music, not a eulogy, and seeing the remaining Funk Brothers together again and playing many of their classics with vocalists Joan Osborne, Gerald Levert, Meshell Ndegeocello, Bootsy Collins, Ben Harper, Montel Jordan, and Chaka Kahn is a joy to watch.
The concert scenes of the latter-day Funk Brothers are beautifully shot by Doug Milsome and not only capture the joy of the music but also how passionately the modern artists in the film love these songs.
Closing credits, which creatively list all the Motown classics on which the Brothers played, make for an emotional ending. Still, one question remains: Will newfound recognition mean the band members find economic appreciation as well?
Period footage of Detroit enhances the production.