Standing In The Shadows Of Motown Review

Standing In The Shadows Of Motown might just be one of the best music films ever released. Telling the simple story of The Funk Brothers, who were the backing musicians behind Motown's biggest hits, the film is moving, hilarious and always entertaining. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why the film works so well. The anecdotes are excellent, the music superb and the story fascinating, but there's something else going on here. There's much love and respect between these musicians, and the film captures the very essence of this in every frame.

American history is founded on myth. Think of George Washington and the apple tree. It's no surprise that the music business has embraced this idea and is dripping with a rich mythology of it's own. Myths such as Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil by a moonlit crossroads, or Glen Miller's enigmatic disapearance or Elvis's, well pretty much all of Elvis' career, are the stock of an industry that thrives on the selling of dreams. The interesting thing about Standing In The Shadows Of Motown is that it's packed full of incidents that should be myth and legend but are all true, and until now, largely unkown. Imagine a band so stressed by the demands of megalomaniac producers intent on squeezing all their magic out of them, that they take to hiding out, and getting drunk, in a funeral home amongst coffins. That's just one of the magic tales retold on here.

The bulk of the film revolves around a performance of the Funk Brothers in modern day Detroit. The rest is taken up with interview footage and location work. If it sounds dull, it isn't, and the film is masterfully edited, cinematic and will sweep you along with it's vision. It's also very moving. You are defied to shed a tear during the scenes in which the deceased members of the band are introduced, by way of photograph, to the audience at that Detroit gig. Again, the scene in which the band once more return to the blandly named Studio A, where the hits were recorded, is moving and subtle. Some of the anecdotes are acted out in silent, B&W montage, and this device works very well indeed. It's never allowed to be mawkish and is very subtle and understated. The concert itself puts the Funk Brothers in their rightfull place, at the top of the bill. Rightfull place because, as one character puts it, "Hell, man, you could get Deputy Dawg to sing and it would still be a hit with these guys playing"

The film takes as it's framework the entire history of Motown; from its roots as a reaction to Evis brand of white rock 'n' roll, right up until its ignoble death among the vapid dream factory of Hollywood and the dead desert wasteland of Los Angeles. It couldn't possibly survive outside its native Michigan, and it didn't. It's a turbulant time on American history, and one of the strengths of the film is in the way in which it deals with the bigger issues, such as race riots and the Vietnam war. It never glosses over them, yet always relates them in a way that's relevant to the subject matter. Nothing is allowed to dominate the music, and it must have been tempting at times, given the impact of Vietnam for instance. Along the way, we get to meet the traditional stars of Motown; Aretha Frankin and Stevie Wonder, to name but two, but also we get that concert footage which is quite spectacular and features contributions from such luminaries as Chaka Kahn, Ben Harper and the, ever spectacular, Bootsy Collins.

Hunter S Thompson once wrote, "The music business is a shallow, narrow, plastic trench, peopled by whores and thieves who run up and down selling each other out and where good men die needless deaths. Of course, there is a negative side as well." This film does little to dispel the idea. In an ideal world, there would be no need for this film to exist. You finish the film feeling slightly uplifted, though, and a little more knowledgable than you did before. And, perhaps, slightly ashamed that it's taken this long for the band to recieve the recognition they deserve, and it's far too late for some of them. We've all heard the songs a thousand times before, but never did we question who we were listening to. Shame on us.

Excellent, sharp and clear picture. Colours are rich and strong, and even the old stock footage used looks like it's had some sort of a digital clean up. There's not a hint of artefacts or any of the other bad things that often foul up the digital soup.

A good sound mix is vital for a film like this, and on this instance, we haven't been let down. The surround track is strong and distinctive, and the mix is just right.

Special Features

Some oddities here, to be sure. First up, Dinner With The Funk Brothers (11.38) does what it says on the tin. You get excerpts from a specially filmed dinner that the surviving funk brothers attend and get to eavesdrop on some of the conversations, such as a lively debate on nicknames. Amusing and lighthearted, it's a nice little feature. No subtitles.

The Multi-Angle Jam Session is a little short to be of very much interest apart from the novelty factor. There are three in all, running for about 9 minutes in total and is in 2.0 stereo only.

The Ones That Didn't Make It (13.34) is not, as it might sound, a selection of songs dropped from the final cut of the film, but instead is a tribute to the Funk Brothers who have passed away. It's cross between a making off and a trailer, utilizing sequences from the film and specially filmed talking heads sequences. A bit redundant, really, considering the film deals with the subject matter more tastefully and movingly. No subtitles and 2.0 stereo.

At Long Last Glory(7.37) is a brief look at the day when The Funk Brothers finally got their moment of glory, with their induction into the rock'n'roll hall of fame it’s interesting and well worth watching. No subtitles and stereo 2.0 only.

You also get some specially filmed Biographies for the some of the members of the band. Now, usually, your biography is the least special of the DVD features, but these five minute segments are a delight to watch. Specially filmed for the DVD and comprising of out takes from the film, they are funny, warm and informative. If you only bother with one of the extras on here, this is the one to go for. They're wonderful and you get six on all (Joe Hunter, Johnny Griffiths, Eddie Willis, Richard Pistol Allen, Joe Messina and Uriel Jones) each one running for around five minutes. No Subtitles and stereo 2.0 only.

Finally, you get the obligatory Trailer (2.07) which is excellent. Moving and warm, it actually makes you want to see the film without ruining it.

All of the above is presented in non-anamorphic 1.78/1.


This is a film that cannot be recommended highly enough. If you have any interest in the music industry, American culture or simply love the Motown sound then see it at all costs and right away. Artisan have produced a disc which, whilst adequate, is slightly lacking in features. The film itself looks and sounds great, though.

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