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USA 2002
Directed by
Paul Justman
108 minutes
Rated G

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Standing In The Shadows Of Motown

Synopsis: The Funk Brothers were a loose group of studio musicians who for 14 years provided the backing music for a host of Motown hits. This is their story.

In the history of pop music there are pop stars and there are studio musos who make those three chords work. Pop stars might make good subjects for docos, studio musos do not. Like their role in the records they make, they're an anonymous lot, musically skilled unquestionably but hardly compelling personalities. Buena Vista Social Club this is not. These guys live in Detroit, Michigan, Motor City - a cold metal industry town - having emigrated there from the Deep South in search of a living, and remain imbued with a stolidily working class ethos. Of the original Funk Brothers, those with drinking and drug problems are all dead, leaving us with a collection of superannuated musical guns for hire, rather sheepishly poking round the corridors of memory.

But this is a tribute to unsung heroes and there's no question that it's deserved. Not only did these guys lay down the backing tracks for a goodly portion of the best pop songs of all time but they can still cook up a storm. The best part of Justman's film is the footage of the concert that forms its backbone - the Funks Brothers (with some help from their friends) backing a mix of well- and not-so-well-known names tackling some of the Motown classics. For me the best numbers were performed by people I'd not previously heard of - Gerald Levert and Joan Osborne (a knockout version of What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted). Ben Harper's indie-style vocalizings I could have lived without. His version of Ain't Too Proud To Beg made Mick Jagger's sound like pure gold.

This is no great historical document - there's little archival footage of the Funk Brothers or the stars they back. The most we get are the odd and unnecessary re-creation of a couple of incidents, black and white stills of those days, and mainly anecdotes from the guys themselves. Of Motown, the phenomenon, we learn very little. On the other hand we are spared the lavish homages of latter-day wealthy white pop icons, like David Bowie and Bono, who are regularly rolled out for these kinds of things to tell us how important these dudes were to them. Like the Funk Brothers themselves, it's laid-back, genially unassuming stuff that needs no more validation than the music itself.




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