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Standing in the Shadows of Motown [Movie Review]

Summary

Standing in the Shadows of Motown is a 2002 documentary about the Funk Brothers, a group of talented musicians who backed Motown’s singers on tour but most importantly studio sessions. As individuals as well as a group, the Funk Brothers were relatively unknown to the mainstream public despite performing on Motown’s biggest hits. The singers who fronted Motown’s various groups experienced a surge of fame in the 1960s which made some popular and launched others as icons. Meanwhile, the Funk Brothers never gained fame though they were the driving force behind the Motown Sound.

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Show Notes

With parents from the Caribbean, my earliest exposure to music was Reggae, Soca, and Soul/R&B. Growing up in Brooklyn during the 90s, I was surrounded by music and found my way to Hip-Hop. My older family members disliked Rap though most enjoyed the newer forms of Hip-Hop influenced R&B. By high school I’d developed a deep interest in music and until a few years after graduating from college I planned to be a musician.

Being from and attending school in New York City, pretty much all of the major record labels were either based in Manhattan or at least had an office there. During my last semester at college, I applied for and completed an internship at Sony. I didn’t even consider any other labels because I had my eye on Columbia given its history with The Fugees and Nas. Though Arista and its OG roster of female R&B singers was also a big deal.

It was around that time that I began reading beyond the legal and business side of the industry and dived into books about individual labels and musician bios. In high school, I’d read autobiographies by Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, and Tina Turner. But at that time being a young adult on my own at college and immersed in the music industry, Dream Girl by Mary Wilson was the most influential music bio that I read.

First, it made me realize that despite insinuations to the contrary, old folks were just as scandalous back in the day. Secondly, it introduced me to the Supremes and I began watching videos of their performances on YouTube. That took me down the rabbit hole of solo Diana Ross, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, the rest of the Motown Sound, and music and musicians of that period in general. My explorations also helped me to understand why Motown as a label was so significant during its heyday.

I’d originally been inspired by what I initially saw as amazing and awe-inspiring unapologetically Black entertainers. But more importantly, I saw young Black entrepreneurs changing the industry and bringing a certain urban swag to the mainstream. Initially, this seemed like a new thing. But in reading about Motown and the other Black labels of the 1960s and 70s, I came to find that there was a long-standing tradition of young Black entertainers using their vision and creativity to create new musical genres and change old ones.

Mary Wilson made me aware of Holland-Dozier-Holland, the songwriting and production team behind many of the Motown hits as she had mentioned them in her book. But I knew nothing about the group of musicians that played under the “Funk Brothers” moniker until I came across the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown. Obviously, musicians played on the songs but I never gave it much thought that the studio musicians were not random gig players thrown together as a song required but rather a fairly consistent band.

Memphis and Philly battle over my heart for the position as my favorite R&B city. But Detroit and that Motown Sound definitely deserve some props for its contribution to music and for giving several icons their start. Until Motown, Black music and musicians didn’t receive nearly the same degree of attention or promotion as their White counterparts.

It also shared similarities with the history of other genres of music such as Jazz. These forms of music were created by Black people and were initially dismissed as being unrefined but eventually became popular with the mainstream, White teens and young adults in particular. Rising in prominence, the genre itself would go mainstream and many of the originators would be forgotten and left behind.

The history of Motown has intertwined with Detroit’s history in the sense that these different musicians came together at Motown because they were drawn to Detroit. Leaving behind their small Southern towns, they migrated to Detroit in search of better opportunities for work at the auto factories that offered well-paying jobs. Many of the members hailed from the South. It was awe-inspiring to see the surviving musicians play in the present and then learn that many of them first learned how to play on improvised instruments as children.

Upon arriving or coming of age in Detroit, some worked regular jobs by day and played at local jazz clubs at night. They eventually found their way to a club where they would play and Berry Gordy gathered them up when he decided to start forming Motown. For the most part, the Funk Brothers ended up being a fairly consistent group of musicians. And because Gordy identified them by visiting the city’s various clubs, the Funk Brothers wound up being composed of some of the city’s best Jazz musicians.

After reading “Dreamgirls”, I knew that a lot of the kids that became artists at Motown grew up in or around the Brewster Homes, a local housing project. Despite what many of them went on to become, most had fairly humble beginnings. I’d seen images of the exterior of Hitsville along with clips of The Supremes rehearsing and singing there but never got a true sense of the scale of the place.

I was surprised when the musicians gathered in the studio just how tiny the space looked. It felt a bit claustrophobic to see all these men gathered in what turned out to be a small room in the basement. I wasn’t expecting a state-of-the-art modern studio but I also wasn’t expecting that either. With Phil Specter you hear about his “Wall of Sound” but Motown also had these rich beats under their songs. You wouldn’t think that these rich sounds and now classic recordings were made in this relatively tiny room in a basement that served as Studio A also known as the “Snake Pit”.

At one point, the bass player’s son speaks about how his father put a little extra energy and improvisation into playing while others might have just played a song straight. The playing style of musicians certainly makes a difference in songs. And on a basic note, not to disparage the way music is currently made but usually just having musicians play live on a recording gives songs a different kind of energy in comparison to being fully created on a computer. It’s like if you imagine going to a concert where live musicians are backing the singer versus a recording. As long as the sound is set up correctly, the instruments tend to sound less compressed resulting in a richer sound which gives the music overall more energy.

This was a different time when labels and managers often selected what songs would be recorded by an artist. They often exerted control over the producers that contributed to an album and many projects only had a single producer. Once the Motown process was locked in, its music production became a bit like an assembly line.

The Funk Brothers functioned like a band, playing together session after session. They knew each other which allowed them to improvise while also easily falling in line. The work process allowed them to churn out records as they worked closely and also became familiar with the performers, songwriters, and arrangers. Because there were originally only three tracks, songs were recorded from start to end in a take instead of records being recorded in pieces and then fit together.

Musicians’ stories of being on the road tend to be entertaining and it’s no different here. The Funk Brothers’ touring tales stories are hilarious. I laughed at the story of riding with Jameson and his bag of pajamas, stanking pigs’ feet, and nasty cigar smoke. There are a lot of great entertaining stories ranging from creative lies about being late to sessions. To ratchet tales of everybody pulling out guns to ensure they got paid at a venue that was known for stiffing performers. Imagine hanging out at a funeral parlor to get a break from recording sessions because Motown is working you 7 days a week for sometimes 12 to 14 hours a day. And then the other guy pretending to read sheet music but he’s sitting there with an adult magazine.

As expected, there are discussions and interviews which are typical in documentaries. But I loved that the surviving Funk Brothers also appeared on stage with different musicians to play some of the Motown hits before a live crowd. There’s also a break where a lady who was a dancer back in the day broke down how the musicians would play to match her moves and although she’s older now, Mama was still getting it.

It seems that a lot of their inspiration came from playing in the various lounges and clubs where they could experiment and let loose. So some of the transitions and pick-ups that they did in the clubs made their way onto records. But a crazy thing to consider is that despite the long hours, the Funk Brothers didn’t just play at Motown. They also worked at other studios which led to them appearing on hit records such as Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher”.

Yet, as with most stories, especially those about the lives of real people, there’s both good and bad. Standing in the Shadows of Motown includes many stories of happy and jovial moments but there are also times of sorrow. There was so much hope and promise in Detroit but it was also a place with some sharp corners and rough edges. This was also the case with some of the musicians who were immensely talented people but with internal problems and struggles. Time and time again we see this with creative people who craft amazing art in whatever form but turn to drugs and/or alcohol as a coping mechanism for their unhappiness or other issues in life.

On the one hand, it would seem that the upbeat and usually positive music of Motown fit more with the optimism of the early 1960s. There seemed to be a concentrated effort to make decidedly inoffensive R&B that would crossover to the mainstream. But that kind of teenybopper music seemed out of touch with the turmoil of the latter half of the decade.

The most emotionally impactful and thus best and art is inspired by a combination of real-life and imagination. By fusing some of the topics and emotions of the time into the music, some Motown artists turned out classic songs and albums. One of which was Marvin Gaye’s iconic “What’s Going On” album on which the Funk Brothers appeared. It’s common knowledge that Detroit and the rest of the country were going through a transition at that time. But it gave a different perspective to learn about the personal losses and hardships the musicians were experiencing while these major historical events taking place.

Mary Wilson mentioned in her book that the vibe in Detroit began to change in the late 1960s which along with trying to get away from the harsh winters, motivated her to relocate to Los Angeles. I plan to take a deeper look into the history of Detroit’s Black community to get a more detailed understanding of events as they unfolded. But from what I gather, there were riots in the city as there were in many other large cities across the country. As occurred in other cities to which Black people relocated, what was to be a promised land of opportunities also had issues that compounded over time and a spark caused the city to erupt. As more companies moved jobs out of the city, problems compounded which further contributed to the city’s decline.

I get that business is business, and the business of any business regardless of its industry or sector is making money. Thus companies make decisions based on what’s best for the bottom line. But the way it’s described that Motown left Detroit is trifling. To be clear, not leaving Detroit itself but rather that the company just picked up and moved without the courtesy of giving the musicians a heads up or a basic thank you out of respect for their contributions to the company. There’s a right and a wrong way to go about doing just about anything.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for art as it adds a certain flourish and expression to life. Music is incredibly powerful as a tool for creating memories and inspiring moods. Unfortunately, I think that sometimes people in general and artists, in particular, can be treated as though they’re disposable. And for people who use music as an outlet for their creativity, emotions, and/or personal demons they put their all into the music. It becomes such a part of them and like most people, they desire to be recognized for their work. To be able to point to their creations or achievements and say that they made that.

I don’t know if the Funk Brothers got a raw deal with regards to financial success like other artists at Motown. But I think they craved and needed that acknowledgment that is far too often only given after someone’s passing. I’m glad that at least some of these great musicians were still around to participate in the making of this documentary and had a chance to share their stories. Yet, it’s sad that these talented musicians have remained relatively unknown despite contributing their talents to iconic songs and music history.

I’ve always loved movies but was introduced to videography and cinematography after learning photography. I’ve had no formal training with videography and the only formal training I’ve had with regards to photography was Black & White film. Coming from that background I enjoy seeing Black & White photos and old video footage, especially of musicians from the 60s to the 90s. There’s a lot of that here, not just the famous singers, but cool photos of the musicians as well.

I thoroughly enjoyed Standing in the Shadows of Motown as it was an interesting but different type of music bio flick. It took time to give the individual musicians a chance to shine but spotlighted the Funk Brothers as a collective. Not to take anything away from the singers, writers, arrangers, or business people at Motown but the Funk Brothers were also an important part of the label’s success. Their playing abilities helped to provide the musical foundation for Motown’s hits. I think it’s important to give people their flowers while they’re here and after decades of being seemingly forgotten, Standing in the Shadows of Motown does that for the Funk Brothers.

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