Updated: Aug 26, 2020
For a vinyl junkie like me the label always stood out when I was flipping through a box of records. Ah, there it is; the navy blue panel topped with a map of Detroit and the red star just to remind us; this is quality: this is Motown. Yes I am a fan; understatement of the century doesn't begin to describe the depth of my obsession. But any hard taskmaster will be difficult to please; even in the plush surroundings of the Odeon Leicester Square.
Hitsville: The Making of Motown tells the story of a cultural phenomenon founded on an $800 loan; and how a modest building at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit changed the face of music. Film documentaries need insight or something previously unseen to ensure quality. Hitsville delivered both by the shed load, as revealing interviews mingled with historic archive material. Motown founder Berry Gordy was on sparkling form and played tag with Smokey Robinson as they jockeyed for the best lines. On screen together it felt intimate as they talked over old times. It was like bearing witness to the keepers of a great civilisation, and we were in on the secret.
Gordy’s early business failures contrast sharply with his gradual development as a songwriter. He eventually formed the company with a family loan. And we should all be grateful that Gordy’s father and sisters financed that start-up loan. Motown was famously modelled on the Ford's Motor company production line; a talented cast of writers, musicians and producers worked on a track as the artist was groomed at the label's finishing school.
Recordings of the fabled quality control management meetings also featured. It was fascinating to listen into conversations as Gordy, Robinson and head of A & R Mickey Stephenson argue over single releases; songs that we now regard as classics. Excellent graphics describe the vocal techniques used by Marvin Gaye on What’s Going On. A rare clip of the Temptations harmonising on a rehearsal of My Girl is also a treat to watch.
What raises this film above other documentaries is the wealth of new material shedding light on a well-worn subject. They cleverly avoid clichés as stills are enlivened by voice overs and hand written speech notes. A beautifully paced narrative allows personalities to breathe and speak for themselves. Motown has a unique place on the soundtrack to our lives. Their genius articulated our thoughts in a song for every occasion. Motown we salute you!