Unsung heroes

Celebrating Motown's unknown musicians

Paul Justman's documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown introduces us to a group of musicians who have given pop music more No. 1 hits than Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys combined.

But if you've never heard of The Funk Brothers, it's because they never recorded under that name. Instead, they were a baker's dozen of session musicians for Detroit's legendary Motown label, the back-up band who helped make timeless icons out of the likes of Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves and the Temptations.

Despite their indispensable contribution to 20th-century song, the Funk Brothers have never gotten their due, a wrong that Standing in the Shadows of Motown resoundingly redresses. Combining earthy interviews with exultant performance footage, Standing honors the fathers of the Motown sound.

At the time of Standing's recording, seven of the original 13 Funk Brothers were still alive, and they make passionate, cheerfully candid interview subjects. Ironically, most started out as jazz musicians — "Everyone wanted to be Miles Davis" — and continued playing the city's jazz clubs even after putting in long studio hours for Motown founder Berry Gordy.

Musicians like keyboard player Joe Hunter shares stories about conflicts and collaborations in and out of the dirt-floored studio nicknamed "The Snake Pit." The late bassist James Jamerson looms large as both the label's most ingenious innovator and the group's most mercurial personality. For the recording of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," a drunken Jamerson was all but dragged to the studio, where he played his part perfectly, despite being stretched out on his back. We see other episodes via strangely effective re-enactments, with young actors portraying events described by the aging musicians.

Hearing the Brothers' hits, you wonder if their own teamwork was so successful that it contributed to their being overlooked. Motown's signature sound is so unified and seamless that it's easy to miss the component parts. One of Standing's most valuable moments has the Brothers playing "Ain't Too Proud To Beg" with each instrument joining in one at a time, providing a showcase to each building block in their wall of sound.

Standing gives all due credit to prodigies like Stevie Wonder, but drummer Steve Jordan remarks, with only a little hyperbole, "You could have had Deputy Dawg singing on some of them and had a hit." No cartoon characters join the Funk Brothers for their Detroit reunion concert in 2000, unless you count Parliament Funkadelic's goofball Bootsy Collins.

Other crooners in the documentary include Me'shell NdegeOcello, Ben Harper and Chaka Khan, with Joan Osborne singing two of the film's most soulful and vivacious numbers, "Heat Wave" and "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?" Scenes in concert, at rehearsals and even at jazz clubs prove that though the Funk Brothers have slowed down, they still have their chops.

Standing shows an enormous respect for the Motown heritage, and some of the young singers sit in on the group interviews, not to weigh in so much as to hang on to the words of their elders. NdegeOcello gently quizzes Bob Babbitt about what it's like being one of the only white Funk Brothers, and the visibly moved bassist struggles to find words to express how close they are, as if it's a subject they never talk about.

Occasionally the narration of Standing in the Shadows of Motown, read by Andre Braugher and written by Walter Dallas and poet/playwright Ntozake Shange, tries too hard to convince us of the group's influence. The documentary quickly convinces us of the Funk Brothers' importance, as a landmark like "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" or "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" can speak for itself.