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Funk Brothers = 5 Stars, but 3 Stars for the Documentary
on May 23, 2003
"Standing in the Shadows of Motown" tells the great and virtually unknown story of the Funk Brothers - a collection of talented jazz musicians who rewrote musical history by providing the music for many of Motown's greatest hits. The Funk Brothers consisted of 10+ very talented musicians, and they definitely deserve to have their stories told. Unfortunately, despite their talent and contributions, the Funk Brothers apparently received little glory and compensation. The story is inherently interesting, but the documentary ultimately falls a bit short of greatness.
First, their contributions to Motown are not given enough context. Most of the story is told by the remaining Funk Brothers, and very few Motown artists are interviewed. I guess that the documentary makers wanted the focus to be on the Funk Brothers, but praise from artists such as Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, or some of the remaining Temptations would undoubtedly have added to the luster of the Funk Brothers. Second, the degree to which the Funk Brothers wrote the music they played was not addressed (at times, the doc makes it seem as though they wrote much of it). Third, some of the stories are told with cheesy re-enactments, which detract from their impact.
Perhaps the best part of the documentary is that the Funk Brothers re-unite to play several songs throughout the movie. When and where these live songs were recorded is not made clear, but many of them are very good. The Funk Brothers team up with several singers, such as Ben Harper, Joan Osbourne, Montell Jordan, Gerald Levert, and (best of all) Chaka Khan. Your enjoyment of these sections will likely correspond to how much you like these singers, but the performances are all pretty good. Ultimately, I think that the makers of the documentary were a bit too timid and deferential in their approach. They seem intent on avoiding angering Motown, even though many of the Funk Brothers seem to have been treated poorly by the label. The Funk Brothers deserve 5 stars, but sadly I can give the doc only 3 stars.