- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 16, 2002

Virtually the entire history of black American music, which is another way of saying every genre of modern popular music, can be traced to a swath of the country's heartland: from the incubation of jazz and blues in New Orleans, Mississippi and Memphis wending to Midwestern cities such as St. Louis and Chicago and even farther north to Detroit.

Detroit, also known as the Motor City, was the birthplace of Motown Records, a hit maker for a number of black singers. There's a palpable connection between cars and pop music, two quintessentially American industrial and cultural artifacts. The Michigan city's booming postwar automobile industry drew innovative black migrants from the South who linked up with Detroit's jazz and blues scene and went on to create so much immortal music.

"Standing in the Shadows of Motown" tells the story of the Funk Brothers, the unsung stable of journeyman musicians who backed such celebrated singers as Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.

It's fitting that their story be told now, before it's too late, because in the annals of pop music, these gentlemen are the greatest generation. Just last Sunday, we lost 66-year-old Johnny Griffith, one of the Funk Brothers' staple keyboardists. Last June, drummer Richard "Pistol" Allen died of cancer at age 69.

Those who have never heard of the Funk Brothers are not alone. Director Paul Justman assembles a funny montage at the beginning of the film in which customers in a Detroit music store are asked if they know who played on such legendary Motown hits as "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "My Girl" and "Baby Love."

Shrugs and puzzled looks all around.

The Funk Brothers?

Put simply, if Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and the Temptations were Motown's quarterbacks, the Funk Brothers were the offensive linemen, who did the grunt work but were rewarded with neither fame nor fortune.

Until now.

At least, that's the hope of Allan Slutsky, whose 1989 book of the same title inspired "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," which he co-produced.

The passel of timeless Motown hits were cut at "Hitsville, U.S.A." studios the basement of an house at 2648 W. Grand Blvd. that the Funk Brothers called "the Snakepit" because of the feisty competition among all young, unknown artists who recorded there.

Mr. Justman affectionately films some of the Funk Brothers when they visit the Snakepit for the first time since the early 1970s, when Motown Records left Detroit for Hollywood a transplant from the heartland that proved fatal to the company.

Revisiting Studio A, as the Snakepit was officially dubbed, is a quasi-spiritual experience for them, as they say they can still sense the prayers of Barry Gordy Jr., the legendary founder of Motown Records.

They were prayers for hits, and Mr. Gordy's record company scored many of them more No. 1's, in fact, than Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys combined.

Several of these classics are revived for "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," which captures a live reunion of the surviving Funk Brothers at the Royal Oak Theater in suburban Detroit. It's the same documentary-cum-live-performance hybrid that made "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll," the 1987 film about Chuck Berry, so memorable.

(The curious inclusion of a few bland dramatic re-enactments of some of the Brothers' old stories is the only thing that mars "Standing in the Shadows of Motown.")

The group is joined by contemporary artists, including Ben Harper, who sings classics such as "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," and Joan Osborne, who stirringly performs the Jimmy Ruffin hit "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted."

As great as these vocal renditions are, it's the Funk Brothers who buoy the songs at the Royal Oak: the galloping bass lines of Bob Babbitt, who followed in the footsteps of the late James Jamerson, one of the greatest bass players of any genre; the impregnable backbeat of drummers Uriel Jones and "Pistol" Allen; the subtle filigree of guitarists Eddie Willis and Joe Messina; the funky vibes and percussion of Jack Ashford; and the unforgettable keyboard hooks of Mr. Griffith and Joe Hunter.

It may be the last time the Funk Brothers will ever perform those songs together.

"Standing in the Shadows of Motown" is a moving tribute to these musicians, who truly were responsible for the durable, timeless magic that was Motown.


***

TITLE: "Standing in the Shadows of Motown"

RATING: PG (mild profanity)

CREDITS: Directed by Paul Justman

RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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