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Standing in the Shadows of Motown

"The Motown Sound." In the 1960s it was inescapable. Of course, every successful pop act of the day had a "sound," be it The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, or Jimi Hendrix. But two record labels of the era — Motown and Stax-Volt — marketed a stable of singers who shared distinctive musical qualities. For the Memphis-based Stax (later Atlantic), house band Booker T. and the MGs backed up Otis Redding and Sam & Dave, among others. But the group also recorded independently, and history has long given them their due (after all, they formed the foundation of the Blues Brothers band in the '70s and '80s). Up north in Detroit, Motown Records also had a revolving core of session men who were heard on every Motown track of the era — artists such as Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, and The Temptations never strayed far from Studio A and its talented roster of Detroit musicians. But as label employees under contract, they largely worked uncredited. Informally, they were "The Funk Brothers" — Standing in the Shadows of Motown is a documentary that tells their stories, revealing the personalities that appeared on more number-one records than any other group in history. A labor of love years in the making by director Paul Justman and producer Alan Slutsky, the film gathers surviving members of The Funk Brothers for a reunion concert, interspersing live performances with off-the-cuff recollections. Those still with us show they still have the chops to play Motown soul. They also note the most prominent members of their clan, such as James Jamerson, the man who defined Motown bass lines. A noted eccentric, Jamerson sometimes was hard to tolerate (he had a penchant for cigars and pig's feet), but his talent was unmatched — legend has it Marvin Gaye was ready to record "What's Goin' On" and hauled Jamerson out of a local club back to Studio A, where the bassist was too drunk to sit on his stool and thus played the session perfectly while lying on the floor. Also remembered is Benny 'Papa Zita' Benjamin, the drummer who set the pace that all of Motown followed, and pianist Earl Van Dyke, who brought keyboards to the forefront of the recording process. Surviving members Joe Hunter, Bob Babbitt, Joe Messina, Eddie Willis, Jack Ashford, Uriel Jones, and others back a set featuring Motown classics sung by such contemporary performers as Joan Osborne, Chaka Khan, Ben Harper, Gerald Levert, and Meshell Ndegeocello. As documentaries go, Shadows does not seek to generate controversy or historical dispute as much as to simply gather old friends and reminisce — fans of the old Motown records will not be disappointed with what's on hand. Narrated by Andre Braugher. Artisan's two-disc Standing in the Shadows of Motown features a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in DTS ES 6.1, Dolby Digital EX 5.1, and Dolby 2.0 stereo. The extensive features include a commentary with director Justman and producer Slutsky, the featurettes "The Photo That Started It All" and "The Video That Started It All," and a subtitled trivia track. Disc Two is packed with stuff, including "Dinner with The Funk Brothers" (11 min.), three multi-angle jam sessions, 15 deleted scenes, "The Ones That Didn't Make It" (13 min.), "At Long Last Glory" (7 min.), bios, discographies, a music-video montage, and DVD-ROM content. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.

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