For a great documentary, Standing in the Shadows of Motown is deceivingly messy. Like its septuagenarian heroes, the film may shamble and bow and creak, but it also delivers—when it counts—pure magic. Paul Justman's concert documentary—like Artisan's 1999 release Buena Vista Social Club—spotlights some of popular music's best-kept secrets. To cite a now-infamous stat, Motown's The Funk Brothers provided the, well, funky guitar riffs, keyboards, and rhythm section backbeats to more number-one hits than the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Elvis, and the Beatles combined.
The place was Detroit, Michigan, beginning in the late 50s and stretching into the early 70s, and the Funk Brothers comprise—according to this new, official history—eight active surviving musicians and five "Here in Spirit" members still jamming in the ether (none more defiantly present than the towering bass guitar god James Jamerson). Amid a time of racial tension and historic social upheaval, the black-and-white Brothers found comfort in personal and musical rapport. As one might imagine, cool stories abound, fueled by good humor and deep reserves of feeling. Perhaps by necessity, Justman and the boys keep it positive, carefully limiting any stories that might directly depict Motown impresario Berry Gordy (whose cooperation was undoubtedly essential) in a bad light.
As an audio-visual companion to Allan Slutsky's book of the same name ("Dr. Licks" Slutsky also produces and performs), Justman's film cuts together archival and modern interviews with ponderously scripted Andre Braugher narration, vintage tracks, and modern concert performances; short filmed recreations give a feel for the birth of the funk and the eccentric camaraderie of an exciting time in music and world history. Often, the try-everything storytelling approach frustratingly blunts the elegant simplicity of these natural storytellers (not to mention the elegant simplicity of incisive facts). But inventive guitar licks, walking bass, and sprightly percussion infuse tune after classic tune, resurrected here in new performances by the Funk Brothers and a full roster of guest vocalists including Joan Osborne, Bootsy Collins, Chaka Khan, and Ben Harper (all of whom are also seen chatting with the boys). Highlights include Osbourne fronting "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" and a rollicking "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" led by Khan and Montell Jordan.
The cultural importance of Standing in the Shadows of Motown is obvious (though other session musicians—notably the horn sections—undoubtedly deserve more due). As a music history lesson, smoky-club concert, and poignantly joyous reunion celebration, the film earns its emotional payoffs in spades, and could be the best Christmas gift you give yourself this holiday season.