802 Movie Review: Standing in the Shadows of Motown

Volume CIII, No. 1January, 2003

Matt Weiers

Matt Weiers is a pianist, visual artist and music teacher in Portland, Or.

Athump, thump, thumping drum; a bouncing, bounding bass; the stinging chord from a bright guitar. A haunting voice floats from your radio and that sound is born all over again: the magic of Motown. My Girl. Heat Wave. Stop, in the Name of Love. For years we’ve heard these songs and they’ve become a part of our lives, evoking our tender emotions and shining into us like sunlight. But who are the musicians backing up the star vocalists on these songs? Very few people know.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown is a film that tells the story of the studio players who created the Motown sound, musicians who helped to create more number-one hits than the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Beach Boys and Elvis combined. This fascinating tale is told through interviews, dramatic reenactments and still photographs interspersed with footage of a reunion concert arranged especially for the film.

The story begins in 1959, when Berry Gordy founded Hitsville, U.S.A. on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. He had secured a building to record in, and the ink was just dry on exclusive contracts with potential star vocalists, but he needed studio musicians. Gordy culled Detroit’s jazz scene and found players with outstanding ability, many who were born in the South but migrated to Detroit for jobs in automobile factories before settling into their true calling as musicians.

In amusing and heartwarming anecdotes, the musicians tell of their desire to play music from an early age, like guitarist Eddie “Soupbone” Willis, who said as a boy he strung scrap wire against his house, used a bottle as a bridge, and “made the whole house rock.” Bassist James Jamerson’s son says that, as a toddler, his Dad put a bowed stick with a string on it in an anthill, and plucked it “to make the ants dance.”

This film gives us brief biographies of each of these 13 studio players, collectively dubbed “The Funk Brothers,” and then interviews the ones still living about their days playing for Hitsville. As the old friends revisit their working environment of Studio A, or “the snakepit” as they call it, we experience the nostalgic thrill with them. As percussionist Jack Ashford says, “There was not only music here, but prayers. I can still feel it in this room right now.” It was a magic place where musical ideas were conceived and crafted with brothers of musical spirit. These songs would soon careen off in a million directions, soaking into the hearts and minds of a generation.

This film peels back the labels on Motown records and allows us to peer underneath, revealing that this treasure trove of sound didn’t just appear by itself, but was the effort of countless creative hours spent sweating in the studio. Work that was unrecognized by the public, shamefully undercompensated by the record company, and ignored by the fame machine that lined the pockets of stars and executives.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown is an excellent documentary film that tells us more about the players behind the soulful music that young singer Ben Harper says “gives you hope in the way that you feel, and the way that you want to feel.”