The Funk Brothers Lay it Down in ‘Standing in the Shadows of Motown’

Watching 20 Feet from Stardom inspired me to check out Standing in the Shadows of Motown (Paul Justman, 2002), which is based on the book by Alan Slutsky. Both documentaries offer homage and share themes and topics related to supporting musicians in the music industry, but they differ in visual style.

Both documentaries tell overlooked stories of underappreciated artists who shaped the music industry. Standing in the Shadows of Motown tells the story of The Funk Brothers, the musicians who helped create that distinct “Motown sound.” The Funk Brothers’ contributions to the sound is key to what makes it memorable.

Through interviews, members of The Funk Brothers recount tales of working in the studio, going on the road, and struggling to make ends meets. They touch on some of the restrictions placed on them by the studio and some of the amusing ways they worked around them. To supplement their studio earnings, many of them would play in bars and clubs at night. Motown spies would follow them and fire them — as if the artists didn’t face enough troubles already with getting paid.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown uses voiceover, reenactments, and a reunion concert for a different visual style than 20 Feet from Stardom, which relies more on deep archival footage. The narration, written by Walter Dallas and Ntozake Shange and spoken by Andre Braugher, is poetic in its explanations that situate race records, the Motown sound, and these artists within recording industry history. Re-enactments illustrate some of the band members’ more elaborate and amusing stories.

The reunion concert is mixed with the band members’ stories. The concert features singers such as Joan Osborn, Bootsy Collins, Meshell Ndegeocello, Ben Harper, Gerald Levert, and Chaka Khan covering such famous tunes as “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Cool Jerk,” “Grapevine,” “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted,” and “What’s Going On.” The camera pays special attention to the band members as they perform the songs. I also couldn’t look at the backup singers the same as I would have before watching 20 Feet from Stardom.

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