Review: Hitsville: The Making of Motown (2019)

Hitsville: The Making of Motown (2019)

Directed by: Ben Turner, Gabe Turner | 112 minutes | documentary, music | Starring: Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, William Stevenson, Valerie Simpson, Eddie Holland, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Robin Terry, Mary Wilson, Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir, Jamie Foxx, Martha Reeves, Dr. Dre, Claudette Robinson, Lee Daniels, Annette Beard, Paul Riser, Otis Williams, John Legend, Neil Young, Marlon Jackson, Little Richard, Jermaine Jackson, Tito Jackson, Jackie Jackson, Sam Smith, Nick Ashford, Aretha Franklin, Michael Lovesmith, Diana Ross

‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, ‘My Girl’, ‘Dancing in the Streets’, ‘Reach Out (I’ll Be There)’… Name a soul classic and chances are it comes from the Motown stables. Legendary, one-of-a-kind artists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Diana Ross – all found their way to great fame under the wing of Berry Gordy Jr., the Detroit-based entrepreneur who has entrepreneurship in his blood. He was personally responsible for ensuring that Detroit was no longer known solely as ‘Motor City’, the city where tens of thousands of cars roll off the production line every year. Record label Motown also put the city on the map musically, with mostly local artists. Because Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, the members of The Four Tops and The Temptations; all were born in Detroit, Aretha Franklin lived there for much of her life, and Stevie Wonder was born in the nearby town of Saginaw. What’s in the water there? Unfortunately, the documentary ‘Hitsville: The Making of Motown’ (2019) by the brothers Ben and Gabe Turner does not answer that question. The film, which was made to celebrate the record label’s sixtieth anniversary, does provide insight into the genesis of Motown and the special approach of founder Berry Gordy Jr.

From a car factory to a hit factory, that’s how you could describe the career switch Gordy made around 1958. Like many Detroit residents, he worked at the Ford plant, where he saw first-hand how the cars were built step-by-step – the ‘assembly line’. That should be possible with music, he thought. He envisioned it this way: a young talent walks in like a nobody and comes out like a star. In an ordinary house in the suburbs of the city – not much later lovingly renamed ‘Hitsville USA’ and nowadays a frequently visited museum – he gathered all kinds of people who could help him turn musical talent into artists: songwriters, producers, musicians, a dance teacher and even a lady who could teach the stars etiquette. Mutual competition was stimulated, because that could only make you better and more successful. During so-called ‘quality control meetings’ it was decided in no uncertain terms which songs were good enough and which were not. Incidentally, everyone within the ‘Motown Family’ was allowed to participate in the discussion. Gordy’s strength was placing the figures in the right places, so that everyone could use their own talents to the fullest.

The documentary focuses on the period from the birth of Motown in 1958 until the move to Los Angeles in the early 1970s and is based on the ‘assembly line’ from the car factory, on the basis of which all aspects that make Motown such a great place success can be discussed (think of terms such as ‘talent development’ and ‘quality assurance’). The Turner brothers managed to get just about everyone involved in the record label’s success on the microphone. And when they are no longer alive, like Gaye and songwriter Norman Whitfield, we see them on archival footage. For example, the illustrious trio of writers Holland-Dozier-Holland shares experiences and anecdotes, just like singers Martha Reeves and Mary Wilson, singers Stevie Wonder and the four living members of The Jackson 5. Also younger artists who have been inspired by Motown and Gordy, like Dr. Dre, John Legend and Jamie Foxx will be there, partly to emphasize the role Motown played, whether consciously or not, in the civil rights movement. The label did not release music for black people, but by black people, meant for everyone to listen to. Or as Gordy himself says: ‘The color of the business was green’. Music as a connecting factor.

Of all the conversations in ‘Hitsville: The Making of Motown’, the one-twos between Gordy and Smokey Robinson are the most infectious. The two have been close friends for more than sixty years and were together at the cradle of Motown; they can also talk about it very enthusiastically and with a lot of fun. Gordy is also involved as an executive producer on the film and there is of course a danger in that. Because how objective is this film? For example, not a word is said about the financial abuses that are putting things on edge. That the rigid and conservative Gordy clashed with more and more of his stars in the early 1970s – Ross no longer wanted to just sing everything he told her to do, Wonder wanted to go his own way musically and Gaye felt a strong need to explore socially critical themes such as the Vietnam War. sing-along – is only lightly touched upon. The film especially praises the less charming sides clearly to the left; like a true manager, Gordy likes to be in control of his products. Fortunately, this musical documentary offers a lot in return: the many interesting insights we get about the ins and outs of Motown, unique image and sound fragments and above all that wonderful music, which still stands as a rock many years later!

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