They were the bass guitars in “My Girl”, they were the pianos in “Cool Jerk” and “You’ve Really Got a hold on me”, and they were the drums in “Ain’t too Proud to Beg” and “Heatwave”, they were “The Funk Brothers”, the most under-appreciated band in music who had more number one hits than the Beatles, Elvis, and the Rolling Stones combined, the people who Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder loved to hang around and learn from as the modern artists featured in the documentary do. Not only does this pay tribute to the artists but it gives them a spotlight of glory that they were never given. The Funk Brothers were a group of men who were a mixture of talented jazz, soul, and club musicians whom were assembled by Motown founder Berry Gordy to play the music to his artists songs, and though some came from different cities and were of different races they became brothers nonetheless.
These men were talented, gifted, and incredible real musicians who impressed many and gained a fan following, they were the underdogs who never got any recognition, no money, and no royalties, but somehow they were able to get something as equally good, stories and memories that stuck with them in their old age. Though they’ve clearly aged in the documentary their soul is still there and more powerful than ever. They can still hit the drums smoothly, strum the guitars like clockwork, and fiddle the piano keys like pros, and show today’s artists a thing or two. They shine, and director Paul Justman makes them shine and gives them what they deserve after all of these years without even a mention of their names. At one point, the director begins questioning people about music and many of them can name their favorite Motown artists without a seconds hesitation, but once their asked who played the backup in their songs, they’re utterly clueless.
Which is rather sad because the Funk Brothers deserved more than they got. Everyone shines here as the musicians tell their individual stories of how they were discovered, about the late night long sessions in the studio they called “The Snake Pit”, and their journeys from their discovery of music, to stardom in Motown, back down to obscurity playing in rundown clubs despite the fact they were so very talented. The poetic opening scenes resonate and lay down the groundwork as we watch the piano player for the funk brothers discussing his career as he plays his piano in a crowded airport lounge, a true statement about how they were robbed of recognition criminally resorting to being simple lounge musicians.
They get to relive their glory and play together once again in some amazing performances from modern artists like Gerald Levert doing excellent energetic renditions of “Reach out, I’ll be there” and “Shotgun”, Ben Harper doing great renditions of “Ain’t too proud to beg” and “I heard it through the grapevine”, Me’shell NdegeOcello doing “Cloud Nine”, and “You’ve Really got a hold on me”, Chaka Khan singing a rendition of “What’s going on?” and with Montell Jordan who both do a great rendition of “Ain’t no Mountain”, and Bootsy Collins who gives a goofy but lovable duo of performances singing “Do you Love Me?” and, his best, “Cool Jerk” looking like he’s having a hell of a good time, not to mention the beautiful Joan Osborne who glows on the screen giving excellent renditions of one of my favorites, the Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ hit “Heatwave”, and of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?”, accidentally and ironically outshining the Funk Brothers with her incredible Janis Joplin-esque voice.
Many of the sequences during the documentary, though, tend to stand out from the rest of the film including the dramatizations. This is never really sure if it’s a chronicle, a concert film, or a recollection of events through actors, it tends to just awkwardly bounce between different concepts. And while the sequences involving the actors would be charming in a different facet, it just seems grossly out of place here and is sometimes pretty un-involving and distracting almost as if the director didn’t have enough faith in the story to just show them talking but instead felt the need to include these dramatizations. Ultimately, “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” is a beautiful portrait of true music artists that never got their due. This entertaining, joyous, and beautiful documentary tells the true and sometimes heartbreaking story of The Funk Brothers, the most underappreciated band of all time, and in this testament to their skill, they shine in the spotlight as they dreamed.