Motown Records was a musical force throughout the 60s and early 70s.
While The Beatles and the British invasion conquered the airwaves, Motown and its stable of young artists made its own mark upon the record-buying public.
While the company and its artists basked in glory and fame, the talented musicians that made Motown’s music so distinctive and recognizable went unheralded.
The documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” tells their story.
Director Paul Justman focuses on the lives of Motown’s unsung heroes, the Funk Brothers.
After their first performance for Motown, 41 years ago, the Funk Brothers are reunited in Detroit for a concert and reminiscing about their glory days.
The veterans of jazz proudly recount their experiences with great humor, insight and humility.
In 1959, Motown president Berry Gordy Jr. began building a record company in Detroit.
He was already gaining a reputation for recognizing and attracting young talent to his label.
He combed many jazz clubs, seeking Detroit’s finest.
He found them in places like The Chit-Chat Club and The 20 Grand.
Many of them had backed up such artists as Ruth Brown and Jackie Wilson, but they had little studio experience.
Gordy brought them to his garage studio, which he renamed “Hitsville U.S.A.”
There, the Funk Brothers and writers began to weave gold with artists like Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.
“Standing” gives these brilliant musicians long-overdue recognition.
The film notes that they have performed on more top-10 singles than The Beatles, Elvis and The Rolling Stones combined.
Their stories from those incredible years are often quite humorous.
James Jamerson Jr., son of the late Motown bassist James Jamerson, recalls how his father got his bass style from watching the back-end motion of an overweight woman.
Jamerson’s story, as told in Allan Slutsky’s book of the same name, inspired the film in which Justman offers insight into the difficult life of a Motown musician.
They were constantly in “Studio A” and pressure was often high.
Some of the musicians dealt with the pressure in self-destructive ways.
Both Jamerson and famed drummer Benny Benjamin are recalled as larger-than-life musical geniuses who struggled with drug and alcohol addiction.
The recollections of the remaining members are poignant and convey the extraordinary qualities that made these men so legendary and their early demise so tragic.
The musicians recall the effects of the 60s on themselves and their music.
Taking a cue from Jimi Hendrix, they were responsible for the development of psychedelic soul, putting their stamp on such songs as “Reflections,” “Cloud Nine” and “Ball of Confusion.”
They also point with pride to their work with Marvin Gaye on the album “What’s Goin’ On,” addressing the racism and violence of the 60s.
The Funk Brothers all but disintegrated when Motown uprooted to Los Angeles in the early 70s.
Band members went their separate ways, until their reunion performance in Detroit three decades later.
One of the great aspects of the film is the musical reunion, conveying the contribution made by the Funk Brothers.
Justman also included an incredible assortment of artists to perform with them, each bringing a fresh but respectful spin on many musical gems.
One standout is the Jr. Walker and the All-Stars classic “Shotgun,” pairing the soulful voice of Gerald Levert with an incredible saxophone solo by Tom Scott.
Joan Osborne is mesmerizing, particularly with Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?”
Standing does more than just give these incredible musicians their due.
It’s a totally absorbing, toe-tapping film that will remind you how much fun it was when the call went out for “Dancing in the Street.”
“Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” is playing at the Ritz at the Bourse, 400 Ranstead St., on 4th Street, between Chestnut and Market streets, 215-925-7900.
Michael Castaldo can be reached at email@example.com.