Call it Motown, Hitsville, Studio A or the Snake Pit. Regardless of the title, it was in this house in the city of Detroit where magic took place in the 1960s. Some of the greatest and most influential music ever recorded came out of the small studio that produced the likes of Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Anybody who knows anything about music, from aficionados to radio surfers, knows the glorious, mellifluent sounds of Motown.
But “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” delves into the heart of the music, the band behind the faces that never received the recognition it deserved. From the depths of Detroit’s prolific jazz and blues scene, Motown’s visionary founder Berry Gordy picked the best to create the Funk Brothers. Together, they fused talents from different backgrounds into powerfully captivating rhythm and blues.
Director Paul Justman uses his first widely distributed piece to artfully revisit the story of the band collectively and individually. Using archive footage intermixed with modern interviews and performances, Justman shows not only the intricately difficult process that these men made easy but also the influence that music continues to have on current performers.
The film tracks the band from its inception to the movement of Motown from Detroit to Hollywood. Motown was the answer to the masked woes of black music. Glossed over by radio due to covers by white bands, the black community was in desperate need to be heard on its own. Musicians had migrated from the South with the prospect for work in the booming automotive industry, but they remained determined to play their music.
While reciting the history, the film also discusses the personal history of the band members. From front-men like Benny “Papa-Zita” Benjamin and James Jamerson to the beats of “Pistol” Allen and keys of Joe Hunter, the musicians poured their souls and sweat into endless hours of recording sessions.
They forged a bond that crossed the color barriers of segregation and wrote poetry through instruments. “Standing in the Shadows” brings light to the extreme racial divide that existed outside the studio and the context in which the music found meaning. While the nation struggled with war, riots and demonstrations, the band created its own harmony in songs like “What’s Going’ On.”
Every member could have their own documentary. They tell vivid stories of late-night sessions where they would lay down some of the most prolific measures of musical history and personal experiences that somehow always intertwine. They were a family together – their musical talent heightened by the presence of each other – and this film finally pays the homage that the unrecognized artists deserve. Raw, humorous and truthful, the players tell their story without regard to the mythical image of Hitsville. However, the film sometimes tries too hard to portray the stories in reimagined clips. Funny as they may seem, their hokey nature does not fit the high quality of the rest of the film.
Special appearances by current singers Ben Harper, Meshell N’degeocello, Joan Osborne and others help personalize this unbiased and historically valid experience to younger viewers who can’t necessarily relate to the nostalgia. Performances by these platinum performers candidly show the influence the music of the Funk Brothers has had on their own records. With faultless tonality and heartfelt belting, they perfectly recreate the aura of the Motown Sound meshed with their own persona, and Justman doesn’t hesitate to show the young performers’ appreciation.
Motown influenced more than just a generation, it impacted nearly all of pop-culture that followed. As Justman himself said, this film was a race against time. After 10 years of intensive research through archives, interviews with band members still living and filming the live performances only a year ago, “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” has finally come to the screen. Although some of the musicians passed before filming began and others sadly just before the premiere, their story will now be told in a film that is as moving as the music they played.