Showtime Helps Motown Records Mark Its 60th Anniversary

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The Showtime documentary — Hitsville: The Making of Motown — tells the story of the most successful soul/R&B record label in music history from the viewpoint of Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

As Motown Records marks its 60th anniversary, Showtime on Saturday will present the documentary “Hitsville: The Making Of Motown.” It’s the first documentary that Motown founder Berry Gordy has participated in. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says his involvement makes the film good but also keeps it from being great.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: It’s a little ironic that a documentary on one of the most successful record companies in music history begins with the sound of a business meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “HITSVILLE: THE MAKING OF MOTOWN”)

BERRY GORDY: The artists that are wide open for releases are Diana Ross and The Supremes.

GREENE: That’s a quality control meeting at Motown in the 1960s. Berry Gordy speaking, his list of artists were a who’s who of soul, R&B and pop music, including Mary Wilson of The Supremes, who said Motown’s Detroit headquarters was like Disneyland.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARY WILSON: But it was a musical Disneyland. I mean, you could walk through the halls of Motown and see Marvin Gaye playing the piano in the corner.

DEGGANS: The filmmakers have a wealth of material thanks to Gordy, who’s also an executive producer. There’s footage of early performances by legends like Stevie Wonder, who composed his hit Fingertips on the fly during a live show at the Apollo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “FINGERTIPS, PTS. 1-2 [LIVE AT THE REGAL THEATER, CHICAGO/1962]“)

STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) Say yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yeah.

WONDER: (Singing) Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yeah.

DEGGANS: Gordy founded Motown in Detroit in 1959. He was inspired by the assembly line at Ford to create a record company organized the same way, with artists shaped by producers, a charm school and yes, quality control.

Gordy and star Smokey Robinson are the heart of the film. They’re longtime friends shown arguing playfully over whether Marvin Gaye or Gladys Knight first recorded “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” A call to a former Motown executive settles their bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, “HITSVILLE: THE MAKING OF MOTOWN”)

UNIDENTIFIED MOTOWN EXECUTIVE: Yes, sir.

GORDY: Oh look; I’m here with Smokey. Tell me “The Grapevine” record and who recorded it first, and what happened?

SMOKEY ROBINSON: I mean, Marvin recorded it after Gladys. That’s what I said.

UNIDENTIFIED MOTOWN EXECUTIVE: No, incorrect. Sorry, Smoke.

DEGGANS: But this film deemphasize as serious controversies. In particular, Diana Ross, who had a complicated long-term love affair with Gordy that affected both their careers, doesn’t provide a fresh interview. Full disclosure – in the mid-1980s, I was in a band briefly signed at Motown. Still, I learned a lot from “Hitsville: The Making Of Motown,” which is an entertaining celebration only slightly marred by its lack of incisiveness. I’m Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “FINGERTIPS, PTS. 1-2 [LIVE AT THE REGAL THEATER, CHICAGO/1962]“)

Article via NPR