That special something was the Funk Brothers, the unsung band of studio musicians who backed up such stellar acts as The Supremes, The Temptations, Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, The Four Tops and Stevie Wonder.
You may not know their names, but you certainly know their rhythms. Think "Heat Wave," or "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," or "Ain't Too Proud to Beg," or truthfully, any of a number of other Motown hits.
These tunes serve as a sort of secret shorthand among aging Baby Boomers. And the Funk Brothers no mere flashes-in-the-pan backed-up, riffed with or contributed to more No. 1 records than The Beatles, The Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley combined.
Shocking, isn't it? But the truth is, until now, until Paul Justman's affectionate and tuneful documentary, "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," most boomers who grooved to these guys the first time around were unaware of their amazing talents.
Now, finally, the Funk Brothers are getting their due peer recognition, lots of applause and curtain calls, and a whole new generation of fans.
In presenting their story, Justman intertwines three cinematic threads: contemporary footage of the surviving Funk Brothers (there were 13 originally; six have died) reminiscing about their long-ago Motown sessions; a few re-creations of scenes from the Brothers' younger days; and, tying it all together, generously long clips from an incredible reunion concert held in Detroit in 2000. Hugely entertaining, that concert shows the 60- and 70-year-olds joyously jamming with a variety of vocalists including Joan Osborne, Ben Harper, Chaka Khan and Bootsy Collins.
If this true "feel-good" film falters at all, it's those odd re-enactments. Everything else about "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" fairly oozes authenticity. But these recreations introduce a contrived artificiality to a wonderfully real story. A bad idea all around, it's as if Justman senses the misstep himself why else would those scenes be so poorly lit?
Everything else, though, is perfectly pitched, combining a great story with great music. Even the final credits are a joy to sit through, scrolling down the screen to the strains of "Dancing in the Streets."
On an equally noteworthy level, there's also a sense of righting a long-held wrong here. These men, gifted musicians all, have long deserved recognition for their contributions to popular music. Now in their senior years, the Brothers all still play the occasional club or studio gig, and do so in relative obscurity. But their love of music remains vibrant and palpable.
Reunited for that Detroit concert, their joy at performing together is infectious, each of their faces showing a happy blend of awe and glee. The contemporary singers, which Justman thankfully knows not to linger on, are something of a mixed bag: Osborne renders a soulful cover of "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted," but Collins seems overshadowed by his funkily sequined costumes. Behind them, though, those Brothers of Funk are making some glorious music, playing alongside half-a-dozen black-and-white photographs, propped up on chairs to represent their brothers who've passed away.
Infectious, glorious and affectionate, "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" will have you dancing in the aisles and then in the streets.
Somewhere in R&B heaven, you just know there's a group of musicians swaying along. ****
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