Friday, January 12, 2007

Travelin' back to Motown

I borrowed my dad's latest Netflix choice, Standing In the Shadows of Motown, about the amazing but underappreciated studio musicians that played on almost every Motown hit over the 14-year course of the label. All told, they played on more number one hits than Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and the Beach Boys combined. But who's ever heard of James Jameson or Joe Hunter? This 2002 documentary aims to rectify that oversight.

The amazing and amusing stories told by these guys are punctuated by live performances of the old Motown classics with new voices on lead vocals. Guest stars include Gerald Levert, Bootsy Collins, Ben Harper, Meshell N'degocello and the surprisingly impressive Joan Osborne.

To be honest, I've never thought much of Joan Osborne before this, but her vocals on these songs are powerful, honest, intuitive and at times inspired. By contrast, Ben Harper looks uncomfortable covering these iconic songs, rushing the tempo and relying too heavily on vocal affectation rather than raw emotion. Which is not a knock on Ben Harper - it's just to illustrate that this is harder than it looks. And Joan Osborne makes it look effortless. It just goes to show that sometimes you have dig deeper than an artist's studio albums to find their true talent.

Update: The soundrack to the documentary is available as well.

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