It was good to see Marvin Gaye smiling down on Leicester Square on Monday night. Even better to settle down inside the Odeon and catch a brief clip of him performing “What’s Going On” live with a band including the greatest bass guitarist in history. To watch the index finger of James Jamerson’s right hand roaming the strings of his Fender Precision was like being read a wonderful poem. All his legendary fluid invention of melody and rhythm was present in those few seconds as he stood beside Gaye’s piano, adding his genius to the other man’s.
The clip was included in Hitsville: The Making of Motown, which received its European premiere only a few hours after Berry Gordy Jr, the company’s founder and president, announced his retirement a couple of months before his 90th birthday. The full-length documentary — here’s the trailer — will be shown in selected cinemas on Monday, September 30.
Gordy and his pal Smokey Robinson recreate their foundational double-act as the spine of the narrative, cruising the Detroit avenues in a classic T-Bird, guiding us through Studio A at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, giggling at the tales of the old days, arguing about who was the first to record “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”. Other interviewees include the Holland brothers, Stevie Wonder, Martha Reeves, Lamont Dozier, the A&R man Mickey Stevenson, Claudette Robinson, Mary Wilson, the only survivors of the Temptations (Otis Williams) and the Four Tops (Duke Fakir), and Barney Ales, the white sales manager who occasionally had to “get a little Sicilian” on distributors reluctant to pay up. There are a lot of clips from live performances, TV appearances and promo shoots, including a hilarious black and white sequence of the Supremes dodging the Citroën 2CVs and Renault Dauphines on the Champs-Elysées in 1964.
It would be true to say the film doesn’t go deep. There’s a very moving montage of memories of life in the road with the Motortown Revue in the mid-’60s, travelling through the segregated South, dodging bullets, sleeping on the tour bus because hotels wouldn’t take them and being denied the use of toilet facilities in gas stations. But the reasons behind Mary Wells’s departure at a key moment in the company’s early history are not explored; ditto the bitter, extensively litigated exit of Holland-Dozier-Holland. There’s no mention of the tragedies of Florence Ballard, Tammi Terrell, David Ruffin or Benny Benjamin (who is not even name-checked, although he’s momentarily visible, with the other Funk Brothers, in early studio footage). The tense contractual stand-offs with Wonder and Gaye are lightly dismissed, as is the human cost of the company’s move from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972. The old rumours of Mob involvement are simply laughed off, which is perhaps more understandable.
Lots of key witnesses to the story are now dead, of course. But in the credits there’s a list of additional interviewees who didn’t make the final cut. They include Kim Weston, Brenda Holloway, Mable John and Louvain Demps of the Andantes, the in-house backing singers. I’d like to have heard from them. Diana Ross is not in that list. Gordy acknowledges the nature of his relationship with his greatest star, and she’s a considerable presence in the film, but she clearly wasn’t interested in telling her side of the story, at least as part of this project. Relatively minor acts cherished by hard-core fans — the Contours, the Velvelettes, the Originals — don’t get a look-in.
Co-produced by Polygram, an arm of Universal Music, which now owns Motown, this is in effect a two-hour de-luxe corporate promo film. Which is not a reason to avoid it, since it contains many worthwhile things, even in musical terms: there’s a beautiful sequence taking apart and building up Gaye’s layered vocals, and big cinema speakers are a very good way to hear snatches of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “Heat Wave”.
But I came away thinking that if Netflix could give Alex Gibney four hours for his Sinatra doc, All or Nothing at All, in 2015, then surely someone could invite Ken Burns or Stanley Nelson to direct a 10-hour series dedicated to a full account of the Motown story, in all its dimensions, from an objective point of view. It would say so much about America, and the world, in the second half of the twentieth century.
In the meantime nothing says more than this, the full version of the piece I began by talking about: Marvin Gaye’s voice and piano with Eli Fontaine’s alto saxophone, Earl Van Dyke on B3, James Jamerson’s bass guitar, Uriel Jones on drums and the sublime congas of Eddie “Bongo” Brown in Chicago in 1972. “What’s Going On” indeed.