Film Reviews

Standing in the Shadows of Motown Paul Justman

Rating - 8/10

During the mid-1980s at a Los Angeles area restaurant, former Motown Records employee Robert White met up with an ex-associate for dinner. Over food and drinks, the present was discussed and the past reminisced. Suddenly, the meal and its corresponding dialogue were interrupted by a distinctive sound protruding from the restaurant’s speakers. Almost twenty years after its composition, the rolling guitar introduction of The Temptations’ My Girl, still scintillatingly fresh and unique, pierced through the cacophony of the dangling conversations surrounding them.

Mesmerized by the melody, the excited White eagerly yearned to tell his waiter about the aural masterpiece sweeping through the room. Yet, before he was able to confer with the waiter, Robert White stopped and decided not to bring up his connection to one of Motown’s most celebrated singles. Unbeknownst to that waiter, Robert White, who passed away in 1994, had been a principal figure in the creation of one of the most distinctive songs of the 20th century.

At a recording session in 1964, Robert White delivered one of the most indelible contributions to 20th century popular music for The Temptations’ 1965 mega-hit My Girl. Yet, White was neither a member of the group, nor one of the song’s credited writers or producers: the latter two aspects were attributed to Miracles’ members Smokey Robinson and the unrelated Ronald White. Nevertheless, it was Robert White who came up with the song’s signature guitar riff; a touch that reaped no additional credit or monetary payment, aside from the label’s standard session salary.

The aforementioned story recounted in 2002 to director Paul Justman personifies much about the director’s engaging documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown: a film dedicated to the celebration and acknowledgement of Motown’s unsung heroes known as The Funk Brothers. Comprised of over a dozen members, The Funk Brothers were Motown’s in-house session musicians: an extensive, ever-changing multi-racial line-up, who Justman argues performed on more number-one records than The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys and The Rolling Stones combined. 
Part documentary, part concert film, Standing in the Shadows of Motown is an astute socio-cultural history from below. Tracking the origins of the group, Justman’s film- based on a book by Allan Slutsky- is not only a micro-history of Motown and The Funk Brothers, but also an insight into aspects of American cultural and political history during the 1960’s: touching on subjects such as race relations to the British Invasion to the de-industrialization of Detroit.
Positing The Funk Brothers as the label’s forgotten figures, Justman’s film defines this interchangeable collective as the true forgers and agents of the Motown sound. Subsequently, there is greater attention paid to individuals such as bassist James Jamerson and pianist Earl van Dyke, than legendary producers, artists and songwriters such as Norman Whitfield, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson. Through interviews with the group’s surviving members, Justman attempts to chart the Funk Brothers’ musical contributions and influences, as well as spring forth anecdotes taken from Motown Records' legendary studio nicknamed "The Snake Pit.”
From these informal chats, The Funk Brothers’ stories coalesce into an alternative narrative history of Motown Records: chronicling into an expansive array of musical influences (Rachmaninov, The Beatles, jazz) and portals of inspiration (exotic-dancing clubs, automotive plants, The Great Migration). Unlike Motown’s southern Memphis-based rival Stax or jazz combos such as Miles Davis’ famed Quintet, The Funk Brothers were not offered any options for group releases or personal projects in contrast to Stax’s house band Booker T and The MGs or Quintet members like Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and John Coltrane.
Therefore, while artists such as Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder reaped in millions of dollars from royalty checks, The Funk Brothers who performed on and often provided key elements to their iconic tracks received a basic session salary, no writing credits or acknowledgement on the covers of countless singles and albums until the late Sixties. Consequently, many members worked multiple jobs, often leaving local jazz clubs and blues bars to take engage in twilight recording sessions. Throughout Justman’s film tales of all-night recording sessions are prevalent, as are memories of subsequent acts of drug and alcohol abuse; illicit acts that offered some overworked members a fateful and ultimately destructive outlet from the personal and professional pressures associated with their work.  
Interspersed within these tales is concert footage shot principally for the film features the surviving members of The Funk Brothers perform a slew of Motown classics alongside artists such as Joan Osborne, Ben Harper and Bootsy Collins. The results are raw and fiery, retaining their distinctive aura and quality despite the insertion of contemporary artists. Although centrally marketed as a tribute and public acknowledgement for The Funk Brothers’ collective contributions, the concert also serves to strengthen Justman’s argument that perhaps it was the musicians themselves, and not the star performers, producers and writers, who created and molded the Motown Sound.
Certainly, there are aspects of Justman’s film, which could have been strengthened or given greater perspective. The absence of interviews with musical scholars, cultural historians or recognizable Motown stars limits the scope of Justman’s study to the surviving members of The Funk Brothers. Despite their multi-racial composition, there is scarcely a discourse regarding racism and the civil rights movement in the film. Although, briefly touched on through interviews, in which the group’s members professed the colorblind, fraternal nature of The Funk Brothers during the 1967 “12th Street Riot,” there is little discussion about the affect of race the highly apolitical Motown.
Although Motown founder Berry Gordy argued for moving the label to Los Angeles in order to branch out into motion pictures, the effect of the riots on Berry Gordy’s decision to relocate the label’s central recording and business apparatuses to Los Angeles is also given little examination. Motown’s own exodus from Detroit in 1972 was the death knell for The Funk Brothers, who were given little notice of the label’s decision, nor much incentive to re-join Gordy in California.  Those who did trek to California often returned disenchanted and unable to adapt to a radically different musical culture. The absence of an in-depth analysis of the riots is quite strange, particularly when one considers the riots forever changed Detroit: resulting in an exodus of businesses, wealthy white citizens and tourist dollars that the city has arguably never recovered from. Furthermore, one can see the history of Motown Records during this period as a reflection of Detroit's own socio-political and cultural environment; a facet Justman declines to fully examine.
In spite of its ambivalence towards race relations, Standing in the Shadows of Motown still shines as one of the most enduring and fascinating documentaries of the decade. Pulsating with rhythm, forgotten legends and overlooked tales, Paul Justman’s film is a timely celebration and visual act of historical revisionism. Despite not always receiving recognition for their work, The Funk Brothers are accorded a tribute worthy of their respective talents and insights.
Brimming with vitality and wisdom, the members show no bitterness toward the past, but rather feel proud to have contributed to arguably the most important record label in the latter half of 20th century American popular music. Like the war-time lover of the heroine in Martha and the Vandellas’ forgotten 1968 Motown single “Forget Me Not,” The Funk Brothers’story is one which viewers of Standing in the Shadows of Motown will not disregard despite the absence of time.