They called themselves the Funk Brothers, and beginning in 1959 they did their work in an unassuming studio they called the Snakepit. It was here that they played on hits for every Detroit R&B star from Jackie Wilson to Marvin Gaye. According to Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a new documentary film that is adapted from the Allen Slutsky book of the same title, these men played on more Number One hits than Elvis, The Beatles, The Stones and The Beach Boys combined.
This film is similar to Buena Vista Social Club in that it provides an excuse to reconvene these men for a reunion concert. Contemporary performers such as Joan Osborne, Montell Jordan, Ben Harper, Meshell Ndegeocello and Gerald Levert handle the vocals while the old-timers vamp on the tunes, which include "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "What's Going On," "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" and "Ain't Too Proud to Beg."
In between concert segments, a mixture of interviews and archival footage traces the history of the musicians back to 1959, when Berry Gordy first got Motown going. As was the case with black musicians in Chicago, most of the men were Southerners who had come north for the factory jobs. But, as pianist Joe Hunter says, "We didn't want to work in no factories. We wanted to play music."
And play they did. While the film makes an excellent case for the Funk Brothers' place in musical history, the film's agenda is too celebratory to offer more than glancing attention to how poorly these men were remunerated by the record company that eventually abandoned them in the early 1970s. A number of these men fell on hard times in later years, including the group's most brilliant member, bassist James Jamerson, who is remembered the survivors with sadness and awe.