Right away, I should mention that this documentary about the pioneering Black-owned independent record label was authorized and to a certain extent supervised by Motown’s founder Berry Gordy. It’s essentially a PR gambit and looks like it. The narrative emphasis is on the label’s enormous success and historical importance, neither of which can be denied. Whatever frictions it covers are good-naturedly glossed over with a smile and/or a shrug, and some of the biggest surviving beneficiaries of Motown’s success, most conspicuously Diana Ross, don’t participate.
In other words, as a history, Hitsville is partial at best, but for those of us who grew up changed by the songs themselves it is, of course, indispensable, if only for the musical clips, some of which haven’t been shown publicly before. The focus is on the 1960s, when everything was still located in that funky little house in Detroit, and the filmmakers do take pains to show how the label fit into the social history of the times, taking in the civil rights movement and the racial strife that has always been America’s original sin. Gordy himself, looking unbelievably fit for a man in his 90s, is on hand for most of the interviews and steers them in the direction he wants, concentrating on the admirably efficient and effective assembly line system of record-making. In several scenes he mixes it up with an equally spry Smokey Robinson, who comes off as the single most characteristic and valuable musical cog in the Motown machine, mainly by default since Marvin Gaye is not around to put in his own claim for that distinction. Both men explain much of the previously unseen footage about specific sessions, and if, say, they probably spend a little too much time on a song like “My Girl,” singling it out as probably the most revolutionary thing produced at the label, they do manage to drop as many important names as possible to make their point. Generally, the operative word during this legendary time was “competition,” since songwriters and producers were pitted against one another on purpose in order to come up with the most indelible hits, and it obviously worked. Motown not only outperformed the Beatles, but became one of the Beatles’ most important influences while they were working at their own peak.
Too much time is wasted going over well-trod ground — the riches of jazz musicianship in the label’s house band, the Funk Brothers, the sales agent who everyone thought was a mafia connection, the earthquake in shades known as Stevie Wonder who became his own industry within the label before he was old enough to drink — thus making the lesser known tidbits that much more enticing. I definitely wanted to hear more about Gaye’s problems trying to sell “What’s Going On” to Gordy, Diana Ross’s diva eruptions, and what prompted the great writing/production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland to split the label to form their own company, which, by what I could ascertain, was not very successful. The history pretty much ends when Motown makes the inevitable move to Los Angeles, though much was still in store for the main players in the late 70s and even part of the 80s. Frankly, I’m not sure a movie like this, devised to sell Gordy’s legacy, is really necessary, and someday someone will do the subject justice, but I thoroughly enjoyed every second of it, and unless you’re totally averse to nostalgia (or under the age of 40) you probably will, too.
Opens Sept. 18 in Tokyo at Kadokawa Cinema Yurakucho (03-6268-0015), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551).
Hitsville: The Making of Motown home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2019 Motown Film Limited