The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Movie Review:
Standing in the Shadows of Motown

Nov 25, 2002

A new film, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, is a documentary celebrating the studio musicians who played on dozens of hit songs on the Motown label in the 1960s and '70s. The film includes footage from a recent reunion concert by some of the musicians under the name The Funk Brothers. It also contains interviews with some of the musicians, like pianist Joe Hunter, vibraphonist Jack Ashford, pianist Johnny Griffith, guitarists Joe Messina and Bob Babbitt and others. For the concerts, The Funk Brothers are joined on vocals by more recent artists Gerald Levert, Joan Osborne, Ben Harper, Meshell Ndegeocello and Chaka Kahn.

While their music made huge stars of some of the vocalists on the Motown hit songs, and millionaires many times over of the Gordy family, who owned Motown, the musicians were very little known. In one segment, the film makers went to a local record store to ask customers if they knew any of the musicians on the Motown records. Other than the vocal artists, most people could name none of the backing musicians. One of the musicians interviewed tells how one of the guitarists heard a song come on over the intercom at a restaurant where he ate. He started to tell the waiter that it was him playing on that song, but he stopped himself and explained to his friend that the guy would never believe it was him anyway.

Most of the musicians played in jazz bands on their own. The film points out that drummer Benny Benjamin had played with jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and others. Yet the musicians had a hard time making a steady living on their own.

Testifying to the quality of these musicians, one of the former Motown producers says, "Arrangers would come in and just have a general idea of our concept and we'd leave them with the masters."The film pays special attention to one of the musicians, bass player James Jamerson. It emphasizes Jamerson's musical ability and the innovations he made. But there's another side to the story that the film doesn't tell: When Motown relocated from Detroit to Los Angeles, the musicians were informed of the move through a note left on the door. Many of them, including Jamerson, lost their jobs with the company. Not long after, Jamerson died of alcoholism at the age of 45.

What we see in the film should raise questions about the nature of music and art in this society. Why are the musicians only now receiving recognition of their contribution to this great music? And why were they not able to make a living playing their own music? The film doesn't explicitly ask these questions, but it shows enough of the lives of the musicians to make one think. All in all, this is a very entertaining and intriguing film. It is still playing in a few theaters.