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.

Back-Up Singers Face Long Walk in 20 Feet from Stardom

20 Feet from Stardom tells a compelling story while glossing over music industry issues.

The story in Morgan Neville’s 2013 documentary is of the back-up singers who sing aural life into songs, such as pioneers Judith Hill, Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, and Lisa Fischer, among others. Consider it this way: Just think of what Lou Reed’s song “Walk on the Wild Side” would sound like without the “doo doo doos.” Or the Rolling Stones’s “Gimme Shelter” without the “rape, murder” cry. Or even Pharrell Williams’s “Happy,” for a more recent example.

Yet, these singers remain 20 feet from the lead singer, the one who gets the most attention. Not all back-up singers seek center stage, but the ones who do face a long walk in getting there. In the end their singing talents will blow you away.

Interviews with these singers reveal their experiences with recording the songs, touring with certain groups, and changing to lives outside the industry and the spotlight. Merry Clayton, for example, describes how she reached for that higher octave in “Gimme Shelter” and blew the Stones away.

Other interviews feature established musicians, such as Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Chris Botti, and Bette Midler. Experts round out the mix.

The use of interviews reflects the expected gendered divisions. The women speak from their own experiences. Springsteen and Sting speak as authorities about music itself, with Springsteen explaining the functions of “call and response” within blues and gospel music.

20 Feet from Stardom represents the unfairness of the music industry when it comes to respecting these artists, who get exploited for their talents and get cheated out of pay, credit, and respect. The documentary holds up Phil Spector as part of the problem, but his actions only hint at the deeper institutionalized practices of the industry, which could have been explored a little further in this documentary.