Standing in the Shadows of Motown

My Rating:

Credit paid where it's due: a documentary with an obligated feel.
Add 1/4 star if you are a big fan of Motown music

Bitable Bytes:
“...Quite Impressive!”
“Good Sense!”
“You’ll Like Singing Along!”


My Rating:

Sexy, deviant, a new vision.

Bitable Bytes:
“Eerie But Engaging!”
“Formidable Sexiness!”
“Engag[es] the Paradoxical!”

Standing in the Shadows of Motown

What to do while watching: A handicraft such as knitting, soap carving, beading, or shucking corn.

What to eat while watching: The frim-fram sauce.

Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops. These were some of the greatest songsters of the sixties. Their influence was felt far and wide, and their infectious melodies are the kind that get in your head and stay there. But notice that with few exceptions, they were all singers, and even Stevie Wonder, the musical prodigy, was only one person.

The question is almost never asked: who played all that great music behind these legends of Motown? Can you recall now that classic guitar lick that leads into the vocals on “My Girl”? It’s just twelve notes, two sets of six in ascending, major-chord arpeggio, but someone had to invent and play that lick, and it wasn’t any of the five Temptations, nor anyone whose name you’re likely to know.

Standing in the Shadows of Motown introduces the world to The Funk Brothers, a loose group of some fourteen musicians, hired by Barry Gordy to churn out hits in Studio A at Hitsville, the Motown music factory. Their ranks included virtuoso bassists, drummers, guitarists, pianists, horn players and percussionists who put in fourteen-hour days at times, writing and playing music behind the greats of the era.

The Funk Brothers played on more number one hit records than The Beach Boys, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Elvis Presley combined. It’s an incredible feat for a bunch of guys you’ve never heard of unless you’ve seen this film. As fame and fortune took the singers to stardom, the musicians continued to work in the studio, making the timeless music.

Forty years later, documentary makers Paul Justman and Allan Slutsky have unearthed these gents and their stories and created a concert of their songs with the original Funk Brothers backing newer stars like Joan Osborne (good), Ben Harper (very good), Chaka Khan (plumped up, but good), Bootsy Collins (a little forced), and others.

Though interesting, I found the pace more “Tears of a Clown” than “Shout” at times. On the plus side, some of the concert footage, in extended segments, left me time to darn socks, a practice that saves me pennies which I can use to rent more videos: it’s just good sense.

Fans of Motown music and documentaries will enjoy this. If you grew up on these songs, you’ll probably like singing along to these faithful renditions. For me, it’s nice to know that these unsung stars are getting some shine time; but the movie also says something, perhaps unintentionally, about how the sheer charisma of people like Smokey, Stevie, Marvin, Diana, Jimi, and Sly is at least as important to stardom as their innate musical talents.



What to do while watching: Wire a shirt.

What to eat while watching: Chocolate-covered raisins.

I was too hasty in returning Secretary to First Choice Video & DVD. I should have watched it again, at least the last few segments in which Maggie Gyllenhall appears fully naked, delectably. But I’m getting ahead of myself, something that director Steve Shainberg also does, starting en medias res, and jumping back to the beginning, as if to say, “this film is going to heat up, so don’t let Maggie’s initial mousiness put you off.”

She plays Leigh Holloway, a young woman with a dangerous masochistic drive. The story begins as she’s released from a mental hospital for having cut herself too deeply during one of her self-mutilations, a habit formed as a means to control, express, and release her feelings around her drunken father, her smothering mom, and the normal malaise of growing up white, upper-middle class, dysfunctional, and bored--in a nutshell.

She improves herself by taking a typing class, and parlays her excellent typing skills into a secretarial job with E. Edward Gray, an eerie lawyer played by the eerie but engaging James Spader. We know something is odd about Edward, not only because of the pre-flashback that tips us off to things to come, but also because Leigh’s interview begins when she walks into a trashed office, past an ex-secretary with the oddest combination of anger, shame, frustration, and regret on her face.

Through careful camerawork, we glimpse Edward’s quirks (a huge supply of red pens, an exacting care of orchids, furious sublimation of sexual energy through exercise), juxtaposed with Leigh’s lingering foibles (cutting her inner thigh, dressing like a retarded school girl, retreating into fantasies).

They are both damaged goods psychologically. She is just learning how to get by in spite of herself; he has managed to establish himself despite his neuroses.

Edward punishes Leigh’s mistakes (typos in letters, style of dress, coyness on the phone) with verbal correction that degenerates into verbal blandishment, and eventually, into a rough spanking that leaves Leigh’s butt the color of brick. She has no interest in a sexual harASSment suit, but instead falls in love with Edward because his sadism is exactly what her out-of-control masochism needs to feel complete. Edward’s discipline and Leigh’s submission continue to escalate to the point of the pre-flashback.

From there, things get worse. Edward is so full of shame and self-hatred for his perversion that he cannot accept the perfection of his match with Leigh. He tries to drive her away. Her tolerance for pain, even the pain of rejection, proves to be stronger than Edward’s self-loathing, and through a crucible of subservience and sacrifice, she manages to convince him to love her. An unfortunately unrealistic conceit is used here: the local news picks up her story, which is how Edward comes to realize her love.

But apart from that glitch, this movie is quite savory in its fitfully passionate pas de deux. We glimpse enough of Leigh’s personal demons to understand that Edward has his own set that’s at least as gruesome. It’s easy to care about these characters, even if you can’t particularly relate to them, and it’s emotionally rewarding to see them come together into a steady yin-yang counterbalance.

Kudos go to the writer and director for engaging the subtle, paradoxical interplay of sadism and masochism, and the fact that the “bottom” is often the one who is really in control of the relationship’s give and take. The film also looks at the paradoxical way that pain, a generally “bad” thing” can result, if one survives it, in something beautiful and good. The movie is also filmed with great care and an articulate visual sensibility.

And I’ve said little of the sexiness of the film, formidable even if you aren’t particularly into S, M, B, D, R, Q, P, and all those other naughty alphabets.

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For your collection: Standing in the Shadows of Motown (DVD), Standing in the Shadows of Motown (VHS), Secretary (VHS), Secretary (VHS)

Gooden's Listening To: Leon Redbone's On the Track His first and best album (IMHO). No, I’m not listening to the Shadows of Motown Soundtrack.

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