Bowling for Columbine
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Standing in the Shadows of Motown
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     I don't see too many documentaries in the theatres but I have seen two very good ones recently.  They are, Michael Moore's new documentary about guns in America, Bowling for Columbine, and the story of the studio musicians who backed up most of Motown's greatest hits, Standing in the Shadows of Motown.  These two films couldn't be more different from each other but are both very entertaining.

     Bowling for Columbine is the latest from Michael Moore, most famous for his documentary, Roger and Me, about the closing of the General Motors plant in his home town of Flint, Michigan.  His latest film, which also centers on life in Flint, explores the relationship between the American people and their guns.  The title of the film refers to the fact that the kids responsible for the Columbine massacre went bowling the morning before they went to the school.  Bowling for Columbine starts with a hilarious scene where Moore visits a bank that offers a free rifle with every new account opened.  Moore visits the town of Columbine and enlists two of the surviving students to go and visit K-Mart headquarters to ask them to stop selling ammunition in their stores. The bullets used at Columbine were purchased at K-Mart.  After a couple of days hanging around in the lobby of the K-Mart HQ, they manage to shame K-Mart into changing their policy.  Later, Moore visits and interviews Charleton Heston, who is president or the NRA. He also goes just across the border into Canada and profiles the differences between the two countries.  After being told that most people don't even lock their doors, Moore is skeptical until he walks around trying it out for himself.

     Michael Moore can be really over-the-top in his work.  My favorite example is when he lined up about 10 cars in front of the house of the guy who invented the car alarm and set them all off at once.  But in Bowling for Columbine, Moore, although still a strong presence, steps back a bit and lets the story tell itself.  It is much better this way and he makes a very strong case against the culture of guns in the USA.  The fact that Moore grew up as a hunter and has been a lifelong member of the NRA also helps.  In particular, in his interview with Heston, which has been criticized in some quarters, Moore just lobs softball questions at Heston  and lets him hang himself.

     Seeing Standing in the Shadows of Motown was a wonderful experience.  Besides being educational, it was fun just hearing the music.  This film tells the story of the so-called ``Funk Brothers", who were the studio musicians for most of the Motown hits by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin and many others.  These musicians were recruited by Berry Gordy who started a recording studio in his garage in 1959.  Standing in the Shadows of Motown is an oral history, with the various musicians telling the story themselves as they sit around the old recording studio, now a museum.  These stories are interspersed with a reunion concert where they play many of their old hits.  This documentary purposely concentrates completely on the backup musicians and not the headliners.  With the exception of one small clip of Stevie Wonder, none of the stars are interviewed for this film.  Similarly, the concert features young singers, such as Joan Osborne and Ben Temple, performing the old standards along with the Funk Brothers.  Osborne, in particular, is a revelation.  I have already bought the Soundtrack CD.

     The stories told by the Funk Brothers convey the friendship and camaraderie that exists between them.  You really get the feeling that they are a bunch of nice, fun guys that you would like to pal around with.  Of course, all the destructive ones are dead and so there is a bit of a selection effect.  Anyway, the film is put together very well, letting the individual musicians tell their own stories which intertwine to tell the story of Motown from its early days to the present.  So, take a break from the Christmas blockbusters and see these two nice little films.