I’ve watched two very different documentaries about musicians over the past couple of days. Standing In The Shadows Of Motown (2002) gives some long-overdue attention to The Funk Brothers, who were the backing band for more than 50 Number 1 hits from Motown recording artists. While the film was enjoyable, it suffered a bit from a lack of historical context, as well as some glaring interview omissions (where were Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, etc.?). Since it was dealing with a large group of musicians, it took a sort of wide-angle look, but it didn’t look very deeply.
I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (2002) is an entirely different sort of film. Director Sam Jones follows the band Wilco as they record their fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Along the way, original member Jay Bennett is fired, and the band are dropped by Reprise Records. With their completed album in hand, they are forced to shop it around to other labels for almost another year. This is a close-up view of a group of highly talented and creative people in the crucible, being ground down by the business side of the music industry, even as they are making the most ambitious music of their lives.
Both films feature lots of performances. In the Funk Brothers film, the band play old Motown classics, backing present-day vocalists, with mixed results. Ben Harper, for instance, doesn’t quite fit the Marvin Gaye mold. The Wilco film more seamlessly blends the performances into the flow of the film. Jones also filmed entirely in black and white, and though a first-time director, he’s an award-winning photographer and his sense of composition is flawless. Like Wilco’s music, the film is polished and beautiful.
Both films are worth your time, though, and if you are able to see them on DVD, both include lots of outtakes and extra music.