One of the best movies of the year hits the theaters today in very limited release. “”Standing In The Shadows of Motown”" (SITSM) is part concert film and part documentary that chronicles the history of the “”Funk Brothers”" the legendary Motown house band that has played on more number one hits than Elvis, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones combined.
When people think of Motown you think of greats like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, you never think of the session players, and what a huge impact that they had on creating those memorable base lines, drum beats, and melodies that we all know and love. It wasn’t Smokey who created the memorable base line on “”I Heard It Through The Grapevine,”" that credit goes the legendary base player James Jamerson or how about the memorable trumpet from “”What’s Going On?”" that was also created by members of the “”Funk Brothers.”" This documentary is not meant to slight the obvious work done by folks like Stevie, Marvin, The Temptations, etc., but to highlight the tremendous contributions that the “”Funk Brothers”" gave to music. When today’s musicians and us young folks talk about Motown as having a positive and powerful impact on today’s music, how we never heard about the “”Funk Brothers”" until now is beyond me. SITSM is more than a documentary, it’s a party movie, it’s an uplifting journey across musical history, with the last remaining members of the group: Joe Messina, Johnny Griffith, Joe Hunter, Bob Babbitt, Richard “”Pistol”" Allen, Eddie Willis, reminiscing about playing with the Motown legends in the basement of Berry Gordy’s house. The film cuts to a live reunion concert that features contemporary artists doing covers of Motown classics.The concert portion of the film is truly fun, one of the things you realize while watching the concert footage is that with these guys backing you up, almost anyone can do a decent cover of Motown classics. All the musicians who perform in the concert pay homage to these legends, as they walk with them through Detroit and they tell their story. Joan Osborne seemed to be positively in awe of being in their presence and her rendition of “”What Becomes of The Broken Hearted”" is simply amazing. While I was watching her, I wanted to whip out a lighter.Also performing is Gerald Levert who does a nice cover of “”Reach Out I’ll Be There,”" my man Bootsy Collins (who is always good for a laugh), two people I’ve never heard of; Ben Harper, and Meshell Ndegeocello, doing decent covers, but the groan of the night went to the god awful Chaka Khan cover of “”What’s Going On.”" Chaka almost disproves my theory that “”anyone”" can sing Motown with the “”Funk Brothers”" as your backup. The phrase “”sounds like a cat dying,”" best describes her moment in the spotlight.This is the type of movie that needs to be seen with a large active audience, the group that I saw this with was singing along to their favorite moments, clapping at the end of songs. It was as if you were really at a live concert. The best part of all was the simple fact that a couple of members of the “”Funk Brothers”" were sitting right behind me during the screening and it was fun eavesdropping on their conversations and listening to their reactions to certain scenes in the film (Check out our exclusive interview with the “”Funk Brothers”" in a few days). This is the rare film that moves and uplifts you at the same time. When you leave the theater you will have a new found appreciation the contributions that session players throughout history have contributed to hit songs that you know and love, especially with today’s music where today’s top stars can’t even sing, that alone play an instrument. Where most of today’s artist are carefully packaged marketing ploys and NOT musicians. Next time you listen to a Britney Spears, Janet, Madonna, Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, think about the session players who are in the background contributing to their hits.Final Grade A+