Standing in the Shadows of Motown (documentary)

Q: Which musicians appeared on more No. 1 hits than the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley and the Beatles combined?

A: The Funk Brothers.

Follow-up Q: Who?

“Standing in the Shadows of Motown” is one of those documentaries that make you appreciate someone you never even knew existed. (I loved “Mr. Death” for the same reason, because prior to that, I had no idea who the nation’s foremost expert on death-penalty equipment was.) In this case, it’s the Funk Brothers, the 14 studio and concert musicians responsible for the “Motown sound” that distinguished that genre of rock ‘n’ roll from all others in the 1960s.

Their names are largely unknown even to music aficionados, yet their impact is immeasurable. The film subtly makes the case that, never mind who the singers were, it was the music — the funky guitars, the wicked bass lines, the exultant horns — that made Motown what it was. Personally, I question whether “Respect” would have sounded anywhere near as great without Aretha Franklin’s attitude, but it’s a subject worth talking about, anyway. Certainly the Funk Brothers are to be praised for their prolific output and their atonishing musicianship.

Made by rock-film maker Paul Justman, “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” lets the surviving Funk Brothers tell their own story. They were underappreciated at the time, and they knew it, but they loved playing together. Now, decades later, they seem to enjoy swapping stories and sharing memories, quietly revelling in the idea that someone is finally giving them their due. It is always inspiring to see hard work rewarded, but especially when the workers haven’t sought the spotlight.

The film is less effective when it recreates key moments in Funk Brother history; surely letting the men simply tell the story would have been better than staging it for cameras.

The Funk Brothers were reunited for a concert a couple years ago, and footage of it is interspersed with interviews in this unfailingly upbeat documentary. The purpose of the film is to celebrate the music as much as to tell the story behind it, and fans of all types of popular music will find it irreplaceable.

B (1 hr., 56 min.; PG, mild profanity and thematic elements.)