There’s been a rash of Detroit documentaries lately, from locals with well fed Kickstarter accounts to seasoned vets submitting their takes on the city to the Sundance Film Festival. As the city’s buzz has intensified over the past several years, it seems everyone’s been trying to best document Detroit and what it all means. In this multiple part series, the Urbane Life will be taking a look at a number of the more notable and notorious Detroit documentaries. This week’s entry takes a look back at one of the best Detroit documentaries ever produced.
Despite the fact that they’re one of the most successful groups of musicians in the history of recorded music, it wasn’t until 2002, when the Standing in the Shadows of Motown documentary was released, did the Funk Brothers get any sort of mainstream recognition. That’s 40 years since their forced dissolution, when the Motown label moved its operations to Los Angeles.
You see, the Funk Brothers weren’t a pop group in the traditional sense. Their name wasn’t on the 45s, their pictures weren’t in the magazines. They didn’t get the paychecks that Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross got. But they were the musicians who, as mentioned in the film, played on “more number-one hits than The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys. Combined.”
It’s nearly impossible to consider.
So the documentary is an important one, probably one of the most important music documentaries ever made, as its success finally put names and faces to the musicians who were responsible for ‘My Girl’, ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, and ‘Dancing in the Street’. It gave many of these legendary–whether you knew it or not–musicians second careers and their first shot at the spotlight.
The documentary itself follows a fairly typical pattern, chronologically following the story of these musicians, Detroit, and Motown with period footage and photos, quaintly cheesy historic reenactments, and present-day interviews. It’s lean, effective storytelling.
In addition to the typical documentary methodology, Standing in the Shadows of Motown also features performance footage from a concert that took place at the Royal Oak Music Theatre that featured surviving members backing up assorted guests, including Bootsy Collins, Ben Harper, and Joan Osborne.
At first, some of the featured guest singers seem weak, given the cultural might of both the musicians playing and the singers (Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, etc.) who were on the original recordings. You’d think they could have gotten Gladys Knight or Martha Vandella to stop by, easy enough. However, this works in the film’s favor, as it keeps the group from being overshadowed, as they had been for so many years previous. The concert, as it should be, is all about the Funk Brothers.
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