Hitsville: The Making of Motown is an important, nostalgic celebration of the 60th anniversary of the iconic record label Tamla-Motown.
Music Factory USAby Phil Wilson
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Detroit music in most people’s minds is indelibly linked to Tamla-Motown. But Berry Gordy already had form when he started his label. He came from a strong black business family, was a songwriter (co-writing “Reet Petite” for Jackie Wilson), had worked with the early soul singer Marv Johnson and had started a record shop (which failed) by 1959.
It was a stint working in a car plant that gave him his big idea of applying the idea of automation to the music industry and this is one of the central threads of Hitsville, a celebration of Motown’s 60th anniversary. The film is an enjoyable, nostalgic and selectively chronological stroll through the label’s early history.
Relying on a lot of 1960s TV film clips and reminiscences, it goes hand in hand with an easy performance between Gordy and Smokey Robinson to give some semblance of narrative continuity. Gordy is surprisingly open most of the time, but then it takes his version of events uncritically. The company’s move to LA – widely criticised in Detroit at the time – is brushed off as Gordy’s “vision” to get closer to the movie industry.
And Gordy is keen to stress throughout the values that he espoused: a feeling of ‘family’, integration (he also employed white office executives, several of whom appear, but his small roster of white artists was less successful), democracy in deciding releases (although he probably makes more of this than was really the case), constant competition and an earlier style of aspirational black politics.
But he wasn’t always in tune with the changing political and social scene, not liking The Temptations’ “Cloud Nine” with its reference to drugs, clearly uncomfortable with the Black Power movement and he didn’t get Marvin Gaye’s original single of “What’s Going On” at all – something he still found hard to admit on camera, although as Smokey says the resulting album is as relevant today as it was then.
Of the producers, Holland-Dozier-Holland and Norman Whitfield make possibly more significant contributions than expected; although I’m not sure if the HDH split is fully explained, although the renegotiation of Stevie Wonder’s contract to give him more artistic freedom is.
Smokey provides some of the insights. How he made David Ruffin’s wonderful voice central to the Temptation’s “My Girl”, and how he borrowed an unused idea from another writer to create “Mickey’s Monkey”. Writers competed in the best Gordy-inspired fashion, but they also collaborated. And then there’s the story of Martha Reeves. How she failed an audition but took the job of secretary they offered and ran into the studio to provide a vocal when the union officials suddenly turned up. The rest is history.
In essence, ‘Hitsville’ significantly reminds us about the social importance of the label. How it broke down barriers and also brought a really wide range of Detroit’s black talent to the fore. Not just a few star groups. This is not just a movie about the Supremes (originally referred to around the office as ‘the no-hit Supremes’); although Mary Wilson is much-interviewed along with Stevie Wonder, Martha Reeves, members of the Miracles, the Marvelettes, the Temptations and The Jackson 5 among many.
There are of course many artists missing: early doo-wop groups like the Monitors, Kim Weston and Barrett Strong (whose “Money” was covered by the Beatles and who became an important songwriter with Norman Whitfield) to name but three. Mary Wells and Junior Walker are only accorded passing references and there’s a lower-than-expected profile for the Four Tops. Musically this documentary seems to wind up around the Lionel Richie & the Commodores period. With Gordy finally retiring at 89, Hitsville will act as a visual valediction.
Hitsville: The Making of Motown is released on 4 October 2019 in the UK and on digital download. From 7 October 2019 it is released on Blu-ray and DVD.