What bothers me about music, aside from the sanitized, overmarketing of a band or artist, is the way that those who play it for its enjoyment are cast aside so rudely and without thought. In Frank Zappa’s outstanding “The Real Frank Zappa Book”, he talks about appearing at a jazz festival with his group the Mothers of Invention, and witnessing the legendary Duke Ellington pleading for a $10 advance on his appearance fee. Quoting Zappa’s response; “We’d been together in one configuration or another …or about five years at that point, and suddenly EVERYTHING looked utterly hopeless to me. If Duke Ellington had to beg some assistant backstage for ten bucks, what the fuck was I doing with a ten-piece band, trying to play rock and roll – or something that was almost rock and roll?”
The Funk Brothers were a group of Motown session musicians who primarily recorded the music compositions separately, before the vocal talent would come in and do their tracks. Unfortunately, the group has been left in relative obscurity. One of the first scenes in the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown is of Joe Hunter, dispatched by a then-unknown Berry Gordy in 1958 to organize the group, reduced to playing piano for tip money in a hotel lobby. At one point in time, Gordy’s label would be synonymous with American Pop Music, and The Funk Brothers’ services would be needed on songs that have become part of the musical fabric of this country. Some of the songs they performed are listed on the cover for the DVD, and some of the artists they performed with were Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, among many other musical icons. A story is recounted about the late guitarist Robert White, who recognized his guitar lick on a jukebox in a diner, but he did not want to bring attention to himself, because of his fears that the other people would look at his claims with both doubt and pity. The guitar lick turned out to be beginning notes of “My Girl.” Narrated by Andre Braugher (Homicide: Life of the Street), Paul Justman’s documentary brings some much-deserved attention to the group who performed on such songs as “Dancing in the Street,” “How Sweet it Is” and “What’s Going On.” While there is a bit of re-enacted footage for a dramatic, sometimes comedic effect, most everything else is the real McCoy, featuring interviews with the surviving members, and how they were brought into the fold, and reflections on the members who have passed on. The group reunites for performances of some of the hits, featuring Chaka Khan, Ben Harper, Montell Jordan and Gerald Levert, and Joan Osborne sings a couple of numbers, including an incredible version of “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.” Meshell Ndegeocello contributes a very soulful performance of “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.” Standing in the Shadows of Motown is a great, long overdue look at the men who helped shape the music that became legendary.
The real treat is the audio. Despite there being a bit of dialogue on the film, the Dolby Digital 5.1 sounds great, and the DTS version is simply fantastic. Bob Babbitt’s bass lines rattle through the room if you let them, and the horns and drums on some songs resonate with such clarity it was a treat to hear. With a feature focused on the members and the music they played, the first surprise I got when I first popped the discs in was the DVD menus, which are both animated and in 5.1 sound, an encouraging effort by Artisan. As is the case with most music features, the option to access the performances separately is available.
Because of its nature, the film is shot on 16mm and DV, so there isn’t a lot to jump up and down about.
A hefty serving of information comes with the disc, including information on tech support and a two-sided sheet advertising one of the features, as well as the equipment on the other side. A 12 page booklet covering the genesis of the movie with essays by the director and author of the book, and brief paragraphs of biographical information about the group are included, along with what kind of instruments they played, and the notable hits each appeared on.
Packed with an extensive and exhaustive group of extras, this 2-disc set utilizes a lot of the features that DVD brings to the table. The only non DVD-ROM extras on Disc 1 are a trivia track, which introduces trivia Pop-Up Video style, and while a small part of the trivia are repeats, other features in the set, most of the information is new, and is a good source of information. There is a commentary with Justman and Allan Slutsky, who produced the film, and wrote the initial book, which focused on the late bassist James Jamerson. Slutsky was also present for the story I mentioned earlier about Robert White’s recognition of “My Girl.” The two talk about the overall race to get the movie made, as they were battling time. They were fortunate to have interview footage with White (who died in 1993) and Earl Van Dyke, who died in 1992. However after the film had wrapped, Robert “Pistol” Allen died of cancer before the film was to premiere (and was downing 16 Motrin a day according to Slutsky), and Johnny Griffith died on the day of the premiere, Slutsky talks about breaking the news to Joe Hunter, who was with Slutsky at the time. Uriel Jones had to endure a quintuple bypass after the film’s production as well. Disc 2 starts with 15 deleted scenes totaling 28 minutes in length. Most of it is jams (with a nice improvised one by Joe Hunter, and a great jazz-like jam at the end Hunter leaves his seat for Griffith mid-song), some montages, and some reunion footage. There is some poignant footage with Pistol and his daughter, and their bonding experience since his wife passed which maybe should have been included. There are 3 multi-angle jams, which you have the option of selecting 5.1 or 2.0 audio. The sessions are about 3-5 minutes each, and there are two angles for each. Because of the cramped quarters, the angles aren’t stationary, so it’s a little annoying, and there are some moments where either angle features the same musician, but on the other hand, not a lot of DVDs are using this technology enough, and Artisan has to be commended for the effort. The video biographies that profile the group members (and 3 text biographies with the Director and Producers) are a great source of information about the individual members and how they viewed the music they played. You can view each biography individually or play them all, which is just under an hour running time. Everything is very engaging, and well worth viewing. At Long Last Glory is an 8 minute feature that covers the groups’ notoriety since the movie came out at various appearances and interviews. After seeing the forgotten status these men experienced, it’s nice to see them enjoy the newfound fame. Dinner With the Funk Brothers covers various topics, reminding me a lot of the Dinner For Five series on IFC. It’s 11 minutes long, and has some good stories, as almost every feature on this disc. Honorable mentions are text screens that credit individual performances by other session members on 15 different songs. The Ones That Didn’t Make It are tributes by the surviving members to the deceased ones, and is just over 13 minutes. There is a text discography that, on its own, runs maybe 2 or 3 minutes, and covers many of the songs that the group played on. There is a music video montage that is a brief 2:17, and consists primarily of old still photos and some rehearsal footage. Rounding out the 2nd disc are what look to be DVD credits.
The DVD-ROM portion has 3 features and they’re a good combination of must-see content and interactive fun. Disc 1 has 3 of the BMW films that have become so popular. The three films directed by John Woo, Joe Carnahan and Tony Scott are entitled Hostage, Ticker and Beat the Devil, respectively, featuring cameos by Don Cheadle, Gary Oldman and James Brown among others, along with some driving stunts starring the sporty vehicle. Normally, I think you have to pay $4 or $5 for it, assuming you don’t own one of their cars, in which case you get it for free, so to get these on a 2 disc set was a nice treat.
Disc 2 has the much talked about hi-res version of the film, and I’ll admit, I’m a minimalist when it comes to computer stuff, so I had to download Windows Media Player 9 and IE 5 (6.1 to be exact), and after that, I played one of the performances from the film, and it looked (and sounded) pretty good. However, since it’s a documentary, isn’t the best source to go from. I don’t have a 5.1 setup for my PC, but I’m sure it sounds great for those who have it. The system requirements (which I assume will be the same for the T2 Extreme Edition) are 1.8 GHz CPU with 256MB RAM, 32MB Video card, 1024 X 768 screen resolution, DirectX 8, and the aforementioned WM Player 9 and IE 5.
The Virtual Recording Studio is probably the best music feature I’ve seen on a DVD to date. The program that runs it is Sonic Foundry ACID Xpress, but I already had the full version on my PC. The ACID version on the DVD allows you to download Funk Brothers session tracks and mix or play them to your liking. You can also sing or play along if you’ve got the equipment. A really cool extra that provides for some great fun. There is also a link to Sonic’s website which apparently is offering a contest for the best mix from the Virtual Studio, but it appeared to not be running at the time of this writing.
Standing in the Shadows of Motown is an exemplary two-disc set that is a great mix of music, information, and fun. With a superb DTS track supporting outstanding performances of music staples, and at an affordable price, the disc is too attractive an offer to pass up. It belongs in any music enthusiast’s video library.
Special Features List
- Director/Producer Commentary
- Trivia Track
- BMW Films short films
- Multiangle Presentation
- Deleted Scenes/Performances
- Video Biographies/Montages
- Selected Discographies
- WMV HD Version
- DVD-ROM Material