Although there are certainly many instances in today's music world where backing musicians have made a name for themselves, more often than not, the names and backgrounds of musicians present on many modern and classic recordings are still unfamiliar to many. The 2002 documentary "Standing in the Shadows Of Motown" profiles one particular group of studio musicians - "The Funk Brothers". While many have probably never heard of the group before, they were responsible for playing on many of the major hits that came out of Motown in the 60's, including tunes from the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, the Supremes and many others.
The documentary smoothly cuts together performances from current artists (Joan Osbourne, Me'Shell NdegéOcello) and interviews with the Funk Brothers. The interviews with the Funk Brothers and others involved with the Motown sound are filmed in Detroit, and the locations and look of the interviews give the film strong atmosphere. The performances by most of the recent artists are simply electric and quite capably show the continuing importance of the "Motown Sound" that these remarkable musicians created.
The interviews with the Funks are interesting and involving; they're full of fun tales and offer their history with enthusiasm and energy. However, the movie could have had a little more focus - a few little cuts throughout the movie (a rather annoying and pointless interview segement early on where the filmmakers ask various record store customers about how familiar they are with Motown history is a prime example - we're watching to learn more ourselves; we don't care about how much these random people - who look confused about what they're being filmed for - don't know). At 110 minutes, had "Standing in the Shadows" lost about 10-15 minutes and become more organized in its presentation of its piece of the history of Motown, the pace might have been improved further. Still, despite my concerns, "Standing in the Shadows" offered a very interesting look at a group of diverse and incredibly talented musicians who, until recently, never got the credit that they deserved in being a large part of a remarkable string of powerful and passionate classics.
VIDEO: "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" is presented by Artisan Entertainment in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. Some viewers in selected cities who saw the film theatrically saw it digitally projected via a new technology called Windows Media 9 from Microsoft (just a side note). The DVD offers a good presentation of the film that seems to present the intended appearance - atmospheric, a light bit of grain, some stock footage that's in fine condition inserted here and there - quite well. Sharpness and detail weren't consistent, but for the most part, the picture looked crisp and well-defined. The few soft scenes here and there weren't enough to take away much from the overall impression.
The picture showed some flaws occasionally, but I didn't think that anything was too serious. Some specks and marks were noticed both on the stock footage (understandable) and the newly recorded interviews (not acceptable). A few very minor instances of compression artifacts were also noticed on occasion. On a positive note, no edge enhancement was spotted. Although the film doesn't have a particularly vivid or bright color palette, colors generally seemed accurate and natural. Black level was kinda iffy at times, but generally fine. Flesh tones were accurate and natural. Not outstanding, but above-average for the most part.
SOUND: "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" is presented by Artisan Entertainment with new Dolby Digital 5.1-EX and DTS 6.1-ES Discrete soundtrack options. I must admit to being a little skeptical at how much surround use a documentary - even one on music - would require, but as presented (mixed and mastered for DVD by the famed technicians at Mi Casa Multimedia) here, the results are exciting and often wonderfully immersive.
The interview segments are as front-heavy as one might expect, but once the musical sequences start up, it's very pleasing how the listening space suddenly opens up and kicks into gear. Vocals from the various musicians are clearly handled by the front speakers, while the surrounds offer some rich, lively reinforcement of the tunes. The addition of the back surround really adds to the envelopment, making the listener feel entirely surrounded by the music.
The music sounds just as dynamic and bassy as one might hope, with a good low-bass kick accompanying the performances. Both the Dolby Digital and DTS presentations sounded quite nice, but the DTS track edged ahead, offering a bit fuller sound quality and a somewhat more immersive/enveloping feel.
EXTRAS: If you can get past the irritating menus (I'm impressed with the animation that was done for them, but I don't want to sit through lengthy animations to get from the menus to the feature lists...), you'll find a wealth of supplements on this 2-DVD set.
Commentary: producer Allan Slutsky and director Paul Justman offer a full-length audio commentary for the picture. This is a very involving commentary that offers a lot of discussion of the film's production and a fair amount of additional background on the history of Motown. Filmed during one of Detroit's worst Winters, the filmmakers discuss trying to get everyone together for interviews, the obstacles of getting the film to the screen, attracting current artists to play in the film and more. Aside from one or two minor pauses of silence, the two consistently chat throughout entire feature.
How It Began: This feature includes a photo and promotional video, both of which were instrumental in trying to sell the idea of the movie to potential backers. Commentary is offered on both features, and while neither are too thrilling, they certainly do catch the interest and sell the idea well.
Trailers: A trailer for "The Temptations" as well as a promo for other Artisan DVDs are offered after sitting through a lengthy menu animation.
Dinner with the Funk Brothers: This 12-minute piece offers a chance to watch as the remaining Funks sit down for a meal. There's not much in the way of history at all offered here, but the stories are often funny and well-told.
Multi-Angle Jam Session: This feature allows the viewer to sit in on a recent studio recording session with the Funk Brothers (3 in total). The angles (2) don't make much of a difference, but the audio quality (DD 5.1-EX or 2.0) is quite excellent.
Deleted Scenes: About 28 minutes worth of deleted footage is offered. While nothing extraordinary, there's some interesting interview snippets and enjoyable performances available within.
The Ones Who Didn't Make It: This is a touching and very insightful 13-minute featurette that profiles a bit of the history of the Funk Brothers and takes a look at the Funks who have passed away over the years.
At Long Last Glory: This 7-minute featurette is a decent overview of the success that the Funks have found recently. It's not bad, but just on the promotional side.
Bios Rather than simple text notes, the bios section actually offers featurettes on each of the Funks.
Also: Music video montage, thanks and credits.
DVD-ROM: DVD Two includes an "interactive recording studio" and "hi-res" version of the film. My computer said "No!", however - the download that was required to view these features on my computer just simply didn't work. Hopefully, others will have better luck than I did. Things didn't go much better for the DVD-Rom features on Disc One - BMW features “Hostage”, “Ticker”, and “Beat the Devil” failed to run in my computer. This does make me more interested in getting around to watching the BMW promotional DVD for "The Run" that I have sitting around, but it's a little disapointing that I couldn't watch these three films.
Final Thoughts: The documentary could have been a bit more streamlined, but the subject is certainly fascinating and carries the interest. Anyone who's a fan of Motown or music in general should at least check out the film as a rental. The DVD is a sweet Special Edition, with lots of features, fine video quality and superb audio.
The Film ***