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'Standing in the Shadows of Motown'

Friday, December 06, 2002

So who were the real stars of Motown Records? Most of us would name the great singers -- Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye -- or those fabulous vocal groups: the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Supremes.

'Standing in the
Shadows of Motown'

RATING: PG for language and thematic elements.

DIRECTOR: Paul Justman.

WEB SITE: www.standing


Local movie showtimes


But the documentary "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" argues otherwise. The movie gives credit where credit is long overdue -- to the unsung backup band that played on Motown's greatest hits, the Funk Brothers.

"You could have Deputy Dawg singing on some of this stuff," someone observes. The movie pretty much proves the point by gathering the surviving Funk Brothers to play the old classics behind a younger generation of vocalists, including Joan Osborne, Ben Harper, Bootsy Collins, Me'shell NdegeOcello and Gerald Levert. They're fine, but the Funk Brothers make it sound like 1967 all over again.

Directed by Paul Justman and based on the book by Allan Slutsky, "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" lets the Funk Brothers tell their own story, along with Andre Braugher's narration, and uses actors to re-create some of the anecdotes.

The movie's structure is too loose for its own good, but it hits some emotional high points -- the sad story of legendary bassist James Jamerson (ultimately succeeded by Pittsburgh native Bob Babbitt); the funny tales of Motown trying to track down the band's unauthorized work for other labels; the moving account by Babbitt of how they became a band of brothers regardless of race, especially when the 1967 riots broke out in Detroit; the heartbreaking story of guitarist Robert White lamenting his anonymity as the creator of the immortal opening phrase on "My Girl."

The movie is best seen in a theater with a great sound system, the better to savor the musical performances. The only local engagement -- for now, at least -- is at the Squirrel Hill Theater. Crank up the speakers, guys.

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