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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, July 28, 2014

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Motown musicians get their due in documentary film


If you're a soul music geek as is this reviewer, you'll find plenty to gnaw on in the new film, "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," a new documentary that tells the story of the musicians behind the stars at Detroit's 1960s hit machine.

It's a joy to listen to the men behind the scenes reminisce and talk about how they came to Motown, how the sessions worked and about the personalities that came together to create a monster sound unlike anything the world had heard before.

The film opens with interviews of music fans in a record shop. Each of them knows Motown and has a favorite artist. None has heard of the great Benny Benjamin or the inimitable James Jamerson.

For nearly two hours, "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," narrated by Andre Braugher (from television's "Hack" and "Gideon's Crossing") and based on Allan Slutsky's biography of bassist Jamerson, tries to rectify that. The interviews are the main meat as drummers Uriel Jones and Pistol Allen, guitarists Eddie Willis and Joe Messina, keyboard players Joe Hunter and Johhny Griffith, percussionist Jack Ashford and others recount the glory days.

There are also interviews with producers, arrangers and songwriters Paul Riser, Brian Holland and Eddie Holland and singers like Martha Reeves and Otis Williams of The Temptations. Modern musicians like drummer Steve Jordan and producer Don Was are also included.

The narration, co-written by Ntozake Shange -- author of "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf" -- also explains how the migration north in search of work at auto plants helped bring these musicians and their families to Detroit.

There's great old footage from concerts and in "The Snakepit," the small Detroit studio where Motown's oeuvre was created, and a lot of still photos. There are also intriguing passages explaining how jazz and one exotic dancer's moves influenced the Motown sound.

Unfortunately, a lot of valuable time is wasted with live performances starring Joan Osborne, Bootsy Collins, Gerald Levert, Me'Shell Ndegeocello, Tom Scott, Chaka Khan and others. The irony of this is that the Funk Brothers are once again relegated to being a backing band; support for big-name stars.

So, while the film is entertaining and informative and has some brilliant moments, it, ironically, can't help keeping alive the feeling that the Funk Brothers belong in the background.

"Standing in the Shadows of Motown" opens Fri., Dec. 6 at Landmark's Downer Theatre.


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