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DVD Review: Standing in the Shadows of Motown

By Glenn Abel

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photo "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" begins with images of a rural kid sticking a homemade bow into an anthill. The bow -- just a stick with a rubber band tied around the ends -- sends sonic booms through the ants' universe, to the kid's fascination.

The "dramatic re-creation" looks like low-budget Southern atmospherics, the sort of thing the History Channel thrives on. But, as director Paul Justman explains, the scene serves as "Shadows of Motown's" Rosebud -- the key to his entire documentary.

Audiences discover that the kid learning about the power of sound is one James "Igor" Jamerson, the haunted genius whose bass licks were the bedrock of Hitsville U.S.A.

Jamerson looms large -- Charlie Parker-like -- over "Motown" the film and Motown the legend, even though he died 20 years ago. He was the king of the label's sidemen, Funk Brother No. 1 -- worshipped by musicians but unknown to the public, even after his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

Justman, who made the movie with author-musician Alan Slutsky, knew nothing of Jamerson and his bandmates before he began work on the documentary.

"I realized these men had played on the soundtrack of my life, and I did not know who they were," he says of the sidemen known as the Funk Brothers. "That blew my mind."

Justman was hardly alone. The film's other opening sequence shows master pianist Joe Hunter, now in his late 70s, playing for tips in a hotel lobby, ignored by passers-by.

"One of the main themes of the film is the obscurity amid the incredible amount of fame (at Motown)," Slutsky says. "That scene seemed to do it."

"Standing in the Shadows of Motown" goes a long way toward making things right. It celebrates the work and lives of the Detroit jazzmen who anonymously provided backing for hits by such stars as Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, the Supremes and the Temptations.

The film made some noise on the film festival circuit last year before finding modest success in theaters. Word-of-mouth was stronger than the distribution pattern; at its peak, the film played 59 theaters, grossing only about $1.6 million. Most who saw it loved it. The film's musical performances at times inspired applause in cinemas, along with dancing in the aisles.

Artisan's double-disc release of "Motown" (retail $22.98) should bring the film the wider audience it deserves. An encyclopedic collection of extras gives the movie's fans another chance to hang with the Brothers. Only the obsessed would want more material.

Sound and video capably deliver the soul power. The 6.1 DTS ES track sparkles, with the rear trio of speakers simulating concert-hall echoes. When the musicians re-create their magic in the Snakepit -- Motown's original recording studio -- the rear channel information sounds as if it were recorded out in the alley, a nifty piece of mixing. Only generously powered subwoofers need apply for the bass gig. The 5.1 Dolby EX sounds solid but can't match the DTS experience.

The movie comes widescreen only (16x9, enhanced). Douglas Milsome ("Full Metal Jacket") was cinematographer on the concert scenes, in which such contemporary artists as Ben Harper and Meshell Ndegeocello sing Motown hits with the band. The performances were shot beautifully on film, with a lot of crane work and the cameras always on the move, as in Martin Scorsese's concert film "The Last Waltz." When Joan Osborne and the boys fire up "Heat Wave," the combination of sound, vision and performance is breathtaking.

Also impressive is the DVD-ROM presentation of the film, provided on disc 2. The high-resolution images, notably enhanced by silky blacks and rich golds, are a step up from those on the traditional DVD.

Producer Slutsky and director Justman's feature-length commentary provides a lot of detail missing from the film, along with significant updates on the Funks. Viewers can select pop-up trivia to play along with the commentary, enriching the playback.

The filmmakers tell how singer Harper was so jazzed to be singing with the band that he went around handing out $100 tips (much appreciated, apparently). Ndegeocello was so awed to be in the Motown studio that she fell to the ground.

Slutsky tried for many years to get the film made while most of his subjects were alive and still able to contribute. "I've been fighting the biological time clock for 16 years," he says.

Guitarist Robert White ("My Girl") helped get the project going but died before production began (he figures prominently in the extras). Drummer Richard "Pistol" Allen passed away after filming wrapped. Pianist Johnny Griffith, a vibrant presence in the film, died right after the film debuted, stunning the survivors.

Justman makes no apologies for the docu's dramatic re-creations: "They're part of what makes the movie swing." The filmmakers don't address criticisms that the movie ignored Motown's underside, perhaps because of label owner Berry Gordy's cooperation with the project. (The film does cover the sidemen's scandalously low pay and the label's abrupt move to Los Angeles in the early '70s.)

"Motown's" extras often have a home-movie feel. Slutsky's early video interviews with the Funks are seen in a short that was originally used to pitch the project. "Dinner With the Funk Brothers" lets the videotape roll as the sidemen, mellow but expansive, swap stories around a candle-lit table. Deleted scenes include a jam session with Jamerson's son, a fine bassist.

Another featurette serves as an epilogue, capturing the Funks' star time at the Hollywood premiere, hands in cement and all. "We know this didn't have to happen," Funk Brother Jack Ashford says. "And we're so appreciative."

Other extras of note include biographies of Jamerson and the other "Ones Who Didn't Make It," a trio of lukewarm jam sessions with a multiangle video option, fairly extensive discographies and, appropriately, a nod to players who backed up the backup musicians.

The second disc includes a fun "Virtual Recording Studio" that allows users to mix individual instruments into a custom-made final track.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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