'Hitsville: The Making of Motown' Is Stylish, Slick and Safe

Barry Brecheisen/SHOWTIME
Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy in Hitsville.

Watch Hitsville: The Making of Motown all the way to the end. Not because there’s a nifty tag scene, Marvel-style. You’ll just want to stare in awe at the song credits.

We’d be here all day if I listed each one, but rest assured the gang’s all here: “My Girl.” “My Guy.” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” “Shop Around.” “ABC." “You Can’t Hurry Love.” It’s a testament to Motown creator Berry Gordy’s genius that these hits still sound as smooth in 2019 as they did back in the 1960s. This catalogue serves as the beating heart and soul of Motown’s story -- and hold together a glossy Showtime documentary that’s more love letter than kiss-and-tell.

Directed by Benjamin and Gabe Turner, Hitsville aims to be the definitive Motown chronicle, and marks the very first Gordy-approved documentary. (He’s listed as an executive producer). Many of the tales will ring familiar to anyone acquainted with Motown history, or simply with access to Wikipedia. Think Smokey Robinson’s songwriting prowess, and the evolution of the Supremes from gawky teenagers to hit-making divas. These interesting-if-well-worn tales are enhanced by rare performance and behind-the-scenes footage from Gordon’s personal library, as well as fresh interviews with all the key living figures. Well, almost all. (More on that in a bit.)   

Gordy, a spry 89 years old, relays his early biography with pride. Born and raised in a bustling Detroit, he sold newspapers, shined shoes and worked at a jazz-record store to make ends meet. When he punched the clock at a Ford Motor Company plant, the proverbial lightbulb went off: What if he started a record label using a staunch assembly-line structure? That way, a kid off the street could walk in one door an unknown, go through a regimented process and come out a gleaming, hit-making star. The film unreels in a sort-of chronological order -- as per Gordy’s chart-and-arrows, assembly-line diagram -- from “Writers & Producers” to “Finding the Artists” to “Quality Control” to “Touring” to “Changing the Game.”    

This is how we meet the legends. Robinson figures just as much into the Motown origin story as Gordy, as he jokes about the notebook of hand-scrawled song lyrics that he brought to his mentor — only for Gordy to dismiss the words as too juvenile. Martha Reeves was working as an A&R secretary when she jumped at the opportunity to front her own group. (Cut to a clip of Martha & the Vandellas singing “Dancing in the Streets.”) Stevie Wonder was a child prodigy, able to glide from piano to drums to harmonica with ease, as proven in a jaw-dropping old clip. To think that these artists were cultivated in a nondescript two-story house in downtown Detroit, dubbed Hitsville USA, seems mind-boggling to this day. As Supreme member Mary Wilson aptly puts it, “It was like a musical Disneyland.” And then five brothers from Gary, Indiana, show up. 

(To answer your inevitable question, yes, the surviving Jackson 5 brothers do appear together in a fresh interview to rave about Michael’s early star appeal. However, you’d never know that the smiling boy singing “ABC, easy as 1, 2, 3” grew up to be such a rarified, if scandal-prone, public figure. Not even his iconic Motown 25 performance in 1983 is broached.) 

The Motown archival footage is remarkable, especially with the benefit of hindsight. The film opens with audio of Gordy laying out a plan for Motown in the label’s early days, declaring to his executives that while they already had a Top 10 with Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell’s duet “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” many of the acts such as The Temptations, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips and the Isley Brothers were “wide open” for new material and potential chart-topping success.

But the most rewarding moments come from the in-color musical walks down memory lane. I could have watched a film solely comprised of Gordy and Robinson trading stories by the piano at the Motown Museum. Their banter is solid gold, as when the former Miracle bets Gordy $100 on the spot that Knight recorded her version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” before Gaye did. And though Neil Young refused to cooperate in David Crosby’s new documentary, he’s more than willing to go on camera here and laugh about his awkwardness participating in Motown’s finishing-school program as part of the short-lived Canadian R&B group The Mynah Birds. 

More than 60 years after Gordy founded Motown, he’s clearly still running the show. Though the songs were polished perfection, many of the artists were rough around the edges. Hitsville only treads lightly on the subject, if at all. There’s no mention of alcohol or drug use, even though Gaye struggled with it and The Temptations singer David Ruffin overdosed in 1991.

Wilson never addresses her rivalry with Diana Ross or the tragic death of original Supreme Florence Ballard in 1976. Ross, in fact, is mostly MIA from Hitsville. (We see glimpses of her in an old, undated interview.) Her absence is palpable, leaving us to wonder if there is still a trace of bad blood between her and her ex-boss/onetime paramour. Instead, we get unilaterally glowing reviews of the strict-but-fair Gordy, as well as the overall Motown experience. We’re not too proud to beg for a more objective evaluation. 

There’s no denying that Motown not only changed the face of pop music, it did so with African-American artists in the middle of the Civil Rights era. As the label uprooted to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, Hitsville illustrates how socially conscious artists like Wonder and Gaye evolved to musically reflect on what was going on outside on the streets. “When you can do what you want, that’s when the real magic starts to happen,” Dr. Dre marvels, noting that his own group N.W.A was later influenced by the concept. Gordy may have started the label, he says, to make music, make money and meet girls, but he created a legacy that’s unparalleled. Witnessing the story is music to our ears.  

Hitsville: The Making of Motown premieres on Showtime on Sunday, August 24.

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