The Making of a Motown Movie
‘HITSVILLE’ HITS SCREENS LARGE AND SMALL
The citizens and czars of Detroit can catch Hitsville: The Making of Motown for the first time tonight (23), when the much-anticipated documentary gets its hometown premiere. Then, the following night, it begins playing for a larger audience on America’s Showtime television network.
Earlier in August, there was a Los Angeles screening, when the great and the good of Motown gathered to walk the red carpet, greet old friends, talk to the media, eat popcorn (buttered?) and watch the story of their lives. Among those present were Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Mickey Stevenson, Mary Wilson, Brian and Eddie Holland, Janie Bradford and Claudette Robinson, as well as the documentary’s directors, Ben and Gabe Turner, and the president of today’s Motown Records, Ethiopia Habtemariam.
You’ve probably seen some of the news coverage, as well as the film’s American trailer and its U.K. counterpart. Both tease this tale of Motown’s birth and glory in Detroit, before Gordy moved the firm’s centre of gravity to the left coast. In Britain, Hitsville is due to debut next month; it will be at its widest release for “one night only” on September 30, for which tickets are available here. Then, it will be in select cinemas from October 4.
By then, you’ll have plenty of reviews from which to choose. Surprisingly, there were none immediately following the documentary’s Los Angeles date. Earlier this week, Gary Graff in Michigan’s Oakland Press – he also writes for Billboard – was among the first to offer judgement. So was Brian McCollum of the Detroit Free Press.
As some of you may know, I have skin in this game, and worked with the Turners and their dedicated team – including co-producer Pip Sansom – as a “historical” consultant (no, not “hysterical”) in the making of Hitsville. I can vouch for their determination and hard work throughout, and their skill in navigating the demands of the story and of those at its heart, including the chairman. Actually, there were at least two chairmen involved: Mr. Gordy, of course, and the Capitol Music Group’s Steve Barnett. The film was commissioned by Capitol, which is part of Universal Music; the latter is the proprietor of both “classic” and “modern” Motown.
All this aside, you’ll come to your own conclusions about the virtues of Hitsville: The Making of Motown. So will reviewers in the mainstream media, who can be expected to judge the film by how effectively it retells a familiar tale, what fresh insights are on offer, and who makes the greatest impact on screen. The chemistry between Gordy and Smokey Robinson certainly deserves attention: it’s remarkable how they still spark off each other, whether betting about who first recorded “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (amusing, since it was the Miracles) or duetting on the company song, or much else besides.
HERE’S TO YOU, MRS. ROBINSON
Here, though, let’s consider the subtleties and minutiae that Motown disciples will notice, such as the absence of Pete Moore in archive footage of the Miracles’ rambunctious performance at the Apollo Theatre in New York – he was serving in the military – and Claudette Robinson’s impressive ability to dance in high heels on that show. She’s also interviewed in Hitsville, which is all the more welcome because her public profile has been minimal since leaving the Miracles decades ago. Smokey’s perspective is all too familiar, hers is not. Hurry up and finish that movie and/or autobiography, please, Claudette.
Likewise, Mickey Stevenson’s presence in the film is a joy, not least because it shows how well the years have treated Motown’s first A&R man (if you don’t count the chairman as that). He sparkles with wit, wisdom and directness – qualities evident in his autobiography but underserved there – and should have had more screen time. Among the film’s most cogent points: that jazz musicians were smarter than other players, which is why Gordy and Stevenson recruited so many of them for Motown.
On which note, the footage of those musicians (and members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra) in the Snakepit is marvellous. They deserve every second, and should have had been blessed with more. There is also a glimpse of God – that’s James Jamerson – playing bass behind Marvin Gaye in 1972, which is footage from Save The Children, the film of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Black EXPO event in Chicago that year (thanks, Harry). Also spotted there: Earl Van Dyke on keyboards.
Another glistening Gaye performance is excerpted from 1964’s TAMI Show concert film, with him pitching “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow” at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium audience, accompanied by the Blossoms, 20 feet from stardom. Meanwhile, one of Marvin’s prime enablers in the recording studio, the late Norman Whitfield, gets his due with interview clips from back in the day, and delightful stills from when his flat-top haircut was in stark contrast to the Afro of his golden years.
New interviews with the stars of West Grand colourise Hitsville, even when the stories are somewhat shopworn, such as Martha Reeves’ account of how she was first employed by Motown. Animated in front of the camera are Mary Wilson and Valerie Simpson; graceful is Paul Riser; laid back are Eddie and Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Duke Fakir and Otis Williams. Arresting is Fakir’s recall of a racial incident in Atlanta, when the cold steel of a pistol was held to his head by a white policeman, accusing Duke of being in the “wrong” waiting room of a bus stop. Insightful is an archival audio clip from Williams’ bandmate, Melvin Franklin, heard saying that “the best thing that happened to the Tempts was Mary Wells leaving” Motown, since this obliged Smokey to prioritise another vehicle for his songs.
WALKING ON THE MOON
Lightheartedly, the surviving Jackson brothers line up in chairs to share a memory or two, although nothing compares – to this day – to the high-voltage footage featured in Hitsville of the group’s Motown audition in 1968, complete with evidence that Michael knew even then about moonwalking.
Filmmakers Ben and Gabe Turner couldn’t locate the Queen of the Quality Control meetings, Billie Jean Brown, but she’s glimpsed in glorious youth in a still photograph. Nor is there interview footage of an important early figure in the company’s history, Gordy’s late wife, Raynoma. Still, it’s good to note that she is acknowledged for finding the house on 2648 West Grand (it was the 60th anniversary of that $27,400 acquisition just a few days ago).
Other backroom believers are represented with contemporary interviews, including Miller London – the first black salesman recruited by Motown – and the man who hired him, Berry Gordy’s consigliere, Barney Ales. The latter was crucial to achieving airplay for the company’s records, such as “Please Mr. Postman” by the Marvelettes – themselves seen in sparkling form on stage at the Apollo – and a disc jockey’s comment is recalled: “I’m playing this record because of Barney Ales.” It’s also observed that Ales collected cash from Motown’s independent distributors across America. If any were to slow to pay, he says he “got a little Sicilian” on them.
Hitsville is being touted as the first time that Gordy has been officially involved with a Motown documentary (he is one of its executive producers), and so precious jewels from his own archive are included – although arguably not enough. The most engaging? Those would be audio excerpts of a couple of QC meetings, those near-mythical assemblies when the boss encouraged his key staff – whether songwriters or salesmen, producers or administrators – to discuss and vote upon the company’s prospective new releases.
‘WHAT DO YOU THINK, RALPH?’
The voices of Ales and Whitfield, salesmen Irv Biegel and Phil Jones, attorney Ralph Seltzer and Gordy himself, among others, are heard on the movie soundtrack, mulling over “My Girl” and its commercial potential. When Seltzer is asked for his opinion and replies “Pass,” those in the meeting mock him. (How did others vote? You must see, and hear, for yourself.)
And so to the principals. Early in Hitsville, Gordy and Robinson step into the basement of 2648 West Grand, wearing coats at first, a measure of the Detroit winter when the visit was filmed. Soon, Studio A warms them up, literally and metaphorically, as they sit at the grand piano and reminisce. Soon, too, it’s clear that these men are as brothers, laughing, joking, correcting or contradicting each other, comfortable in their own, rather senior, skin. Motown disciples will forgive them for telling the tale, yet again, of how the Miracles’ “Shop Around” was re-recorded in the middle of the night, because when they turn to talking about “I’ll Try Something New,” it’s as if Robinson’s song acquires a new meaning and majesty. Hearing that for the first time, says Gordy, was “the day I knew I had a genius on my hands.”
There are also separate Robinson and Gordy interviews in Hitsville, including a segment where the latter recalls – as he has done elsewhere – Diana Ross’ refusal to include “You’re Nobody ’til Somebody Loves You” during a show in Manchester in 1965. Gordy refers to “those 700 people out there” – an improbable number, given how few were in the audiences beyond London during that Tamla Motown tour of the United Kingdom.
On the subject of refusals, Diana would not be interviewed for this film, so the original Supremes are represented by Mary Wilson – always a lively talker – and archive material. Some of this has been used before: the group dodging traffic on the Champs-Élysées in ’65, smiling with presidential contender Hubert Humphrey in New York in ’68. Rarer is a clip of the “no-hit Supremes” at the Apollo, rendering “My Heart Can’t Take It No More.”
Fortunately, another of Motown’s most influential stars gave Hitsville his time and observations. None of what Stevie Wonder says is earth-shaking or new, but he brings gravitas to the film, while his music reminds viewers of everything that was fresh and exciting about “The Sound of Young America” during the 1960s, and of the determination and innovation which characterised Wonder – and Gaye – during the ’70s. “I was forced to relent to his demands,” admits Berry Gordy of the maturing Stevie’s need for creative freedom and roof-raising royalties, while “All In Love Is Fair” is heard on the soundtrack.
With luck, Hitsville: The Making of Motown will be seen and enjoyed by millions. Not everyone with questions will have them answered, nor is every grievance addressed, just as not every worthy Motown act is recognised or remembered. But it does enable a deeper understanding of this 20th century cultural phenomenon – and perhaps will even encourage some to make a better effort to learn the company song, 60 years on.