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This documentary drags the Funk Brothers out of the shadows into the limelight where, it argues, they belong. The self-named Funk Brothers were a group of session musicians gathered in Detroit who created what is known as the Motown sound, putting the backbeat, the soul, the funk, into the recordings of legends like Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and The Supremes, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and many more. Working at Motown records from 1958, over a 14 year period, members of the Funk Brothers played on more No 1 hit songs than Elvis Presley, The Beach Boys, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones – combined.

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Berry Gordy jnr founded Motown in 1958; it takes its name from its home city, Detroit, home of America’s car makers, hence Motor Town or MoTown for short – a name that’s so saturated with the music created there that it even sounds cool, hip, musical. The film took its inspiration from Slutsky’s 1989 book about the legendary bassist James Jamerson, one of the Funk Brothers. Slutsky got drawn into the remaining circle of the Funk Brothers in the course of research, and he also discovered the bleeding obvious: the success of Motown’s greatest recording stars lay in the musicians who worked the sessions. By a stroke of luck, the 30 odd musos who were regulars in the tiny basement studio played off and with each other in an ever inspired, ever inventive way that gelled as a unique, irresistible sound of its own. Didn’t matter who sang the dang song! 

This melting pot of musical forces found in each other’s improvised inventions the soul of the music they were playing. The documentary was financed by amateur musicians and includes performances on archival footage, plus brand new, super-sharp works recorded at Detroit’s Royal Oak Music Theatre, where the Funk Brothers (those still alive) are re-united for the jam session of their lives. These songs include Reach Out I’ll be There, Heat Wave, You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me, Do You Love Me, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted and What’s Going On. Other songs scattered through the film include You Keep Me Hanging On, Where Did Our Love Go, Baby Love, My Girl and Dancin’ In The Streets. You’d have to be dead (or musically flatlining) not to dig this doco.

As for the DVD, there are some unusually clunky navigational issues on Disc 1: eg the More Special features link trundles about for a while only to get to a message saying see Disc 2; go to audio set up to select the commentary, but the gimmicky menu doesn’t guide you how to actually get it playing. The trick is to select your option and then hit the play button onyour DVD player/remote. I also found the sound level on Disc 1 to be unusually low: you have to crank it up on your player. But the Video that started it all (5 mins) in archival B&W, is a great addition to the doco with close up anecdotal material from the Funk Brothers around a table in somebody’s house.

Disc 2 has a collection of funky stuff, like the Dinner With The Funks – they chat around the dinner table after getting together again 30 years after those heady days. There are anecdotes and nostalgia, all very intimate and enjoyable. 

The deleted scenes – there are 15, no less – are great fun and extend the depth of musical understanding of the Funks. Fans of the music will drool. 

The multi-angle jam sessions are just a gimmick, with a picture in picture device as they shot some session work. But in At long last Glory, we get a doco within a doco, covering the late-found fame of the Funks in an 8-minute featurette. The 12 minute tribute to The Ones that didn’t Make It is a nice touch, and the selection of video biographies focuses on each Funk brother in turn. 

And then you can go to your computer and go into the virtual studio to mix some of your own Funk – after downloading the Sony ACID plug-in. It’s probably irressitable to music producers who want to lay a track with the Funk brothers, but I found it way too serious for me. I just wanna turn up the real thing and get my DVD dollar’s worth!

Published November13, 2003

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CAST: Documentary of the Funk Brothers, featuring Alex Alexander, Donald Becks jnr, Garu Bosek, Michael Ellison, Otis Lockhart, Brian Marable, Antonie McKay, Mark Mutafian, Antonio Ramirez, Kevin Smith, Joe Wheeler. Narrated by Andre Braugher.

DIRECTOR: Paul Justman

SCRIPT: Inspired by the book Standing in the Shadows of Motown by Allan Slutsky

RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes

PRESENTATION: 16:9 (feature only) DD 5.1 & 2.0

SPECIAL FEATURES: Disc 1 – How it all began (The Photo that started it all, commentary by Allan Slutsky; The Video that Started it all, commentary by Paul Justman); song selection; trivia track; trailer gallery. Disc 2 – Dinner with The Funks; multi-angle jam sessions; deleted scenes; At long last Glory; The Ones that didn’t Make It; music video montage; DVD ROM feature – mix your own Funky song (requires ACID download)


DVD RELEASE: October 15, 2003

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