Movie Reviews
2:37 pm
Tue December 10, 2002

Standing in the Shadows of Motown

This is music and learning woven through some of the most exciting pop music in the 60's and 70's. You don't believe me?

As I stood a while ago in Windsor looking across the water at Detroit's hollow Renaissance Center, I thought, "A renaissance about what?" I just didn't know that Eminem would soon help reshape music out of a bleak 8 mile slum, and I had forgotten Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, James Jamerson, and Ivy Joe Hunter would be but a few musicians who had renewed that city in the name of Motown.

Paul Justman's documentary, "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," brings back original performances of the house musicians, the Funk Brothers, in that dingy Detroit studio called the "snakepit," and it engagingly lets them talk now about the renaissance then.

The film shows the irony of the Funk Brothers' relative obscurity while they made more number one hit music than that of the Beatles and Elvis combined. Just before his death, otherworldly bassist James Jamerson could get into the Motown 25th-anniversary TV special ironically only by scalping a ticket. Not until Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" album in 1970 were the brothers credited at all for their contribution.

The film has its weaknesses: the camera rarely stays long enough on the Brothers when they are playing, preferring to emphasize the contemporary singers. The film also has some dramatic re-creations of their road life that would better have been talked about than so visually out of place.

This is music and learning woven through some of the most exciting pop music in the 60's and 70's. You don't believe me? Just think of the opening bass line in "My Girl", an unforgettable riff by Robert White, and you'll get the idea. Adding to your listening recollection might be the horns and flutes of the Four Tops' energetic "I'll be there," or anything by Smokey Robinson or Marvin Gaye. This documentary gives Detroit respect.