Standing in the Shadows of Motown | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Standing in the Shadows of Motown

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Allan Slutsky's book Standing in the Shadows of Motown told the story of James Jamerson, the legendary R & B bassist whose dexterous and innovative playing was integral to the Motown sound but who, four months before his death from cirrhosis of the liver, had to buy a ticket from a scalper to see the label's 25th-anniversary concert. This slick documentary by Paul Justman widens the book's parameters to include all the Funk Brothers, as Jamerson and his fellow session men called themselves, and reunites them for an extraordinary concert in Detroit. Standing in for the old Motown stars are vocalists like Ben Harper, Joan Osborne, Chaka Khan, and Meshell Ndegeocello, but the real revelation is hearing those minutely detailed arrangements--which were crammed onto two or three tape tracks back in the day--captured with all the clarity of a modern recording. The balance of the film is less impressive: with more than a dozen players to profile, Justman is limited to thumbnail portraits, and though the gentlemanly old musicians speak with intelligence and feeling about one another's playing, the 60s nostalgia is a constant drag on the narrative. Still, there's no denying the music's magic, and like several other superb studio bands of the era--the Wrecking Crew, who recorded for Phil Spector, or the band at American Sound Studios in Memphis, who cut numerous blue-eyed soul hits--the Funk Brothers deserve their day in the sun. 108 min. Pipers Alley.

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