Detroit the film visited Detroit the city this week, for a premiere and much more — including some nods to the Motor City’s musical heritage that’s also showcased in Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow’s powerful and brutal depiction of events during the town’s 1967 civil unrest.
“Detroit is blessed with some rich history,” John Boyega, who plays private security guard Melvin Dismukes, told Billboard as he entered the opulent Fox Theatre lobby for Tuesday night’s premiere. “I went to the Motown Museum today. I’m going through places that have such a rich history. That I get to be part of that in some way is a massive thing — like this theater. Loads of stars have come through these doors and I’m one of them, and I can’t even” — breaking into musical voice “– siiiing!. For me it just feels good. it feels really, really good.”
Bigelow, meanwhile, said that being in the city she torches on screen 50 years after those events was “very surreal. It’s a very resilient city. It’s coming back to life and that’s really a testament to the people of Detroit. The emotional outpouring is profound, and that’s exciting.”
Detroit opens in Detroit (of course), New York, Los Angeles and other cities on Friday (July 28) and wide on Aug. 4. Most of the movie was shot in Boston, after Michigan rescinded its film incentive program, but select scenes — including actors playing the Dramatics recording in Studio A at Motown’s original Hitsville USA headquarters — were done in Detroit.
Bigelow and screenwriter/producer Mark Boal were joined by some 20 cast members for the three-day visit, which included stops at the Motown Museum, a community food bank, one of Detroit’s iconic coney island restaurants and a park on the site where the uprising began on July 23, 1967. Cast members also dropped by the city’s Emerson Elementary-Middle School to present a VH1 Save The Music Core Band Grant, which will pay for instruments and other equipment for students.
“It’s a full circle feeling,” said actor Peyton “Alex” Smith, who plays one of the on-screen Dramatics. “We were supposed to do it this way. We were supposed to come back here and tell people to reinvest in Detroit and get involved in Detroit. We can’t just make a movie and just leave. That’s not how this works.”
The cast’s Joseph David-Jones added that, “It’s funny going from (filming) Detroit in the 60s and seeing that mayhem and big rebellion and then seeing how far Detroit has come along and how great and resilient the people are here. Being here promoting this movie, going to the Coney Island and all that has been amazing. It brings hope, even though we still have a long way to go.”
The “Motown” soundtrack album will be released on Aug. 4, featuring 14 tracks drawn mostly from the deeper portion of the Motown catalog, with two Dramatics tracks and a new song by the Roots, “It Ain’t Fair,” that features Bilal.
“The song choices were really a product of the culture at the time and the period, and also digging a little deeper than perhaps the more well-known pieces, and trying to keep it really intriguing and yet accurate and authentic to the period,” Bigelow explained. “You can’t tell the story without music; That really is in the DNA of that event and the city at that time.”
She goes on to describe the Motown sound as “really the catalyst that I think galvanized everybody. Not every one [of the songs] is very well-known but they add to the tapestry and… you try to make it as accurate and authentic as you possibly can and yet make it feel real and fresh.”
Cleveland Larry Reed, the real-life former Dramatics lead singer whose experiences during the unrest led him to focus on church music, attended Tuesday night’s screening, along with Algee Smith, who portrays him, and the other on-screen Dramatics. Motown star and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Martha Reeves attended as well; she and the Vandellas are portrayed in the film, performing “Nowhere To Run” at a concert that had to be evacuated during the start of the five days of violence.
“I was about to sing ‘Jimmy Mack’ for the first time, but didn’t get to do it,” Reeves said, noting poetic justice that the song is included on the Detroit soundtrack. Reeves also pointed out that she “was the one summoned to tell everybody to walk out of the theater quietly, that the riots had started and the sirens were roaring, tanks were on the street” rather than the male emcee shown in the film.
R&B star Miguel makes a brief appearance in Detroit as a later member of the Dramatics, while Smith — who also prortrayed Ralph Tresvant in BET’s The New Edition Story mini-series — has released an EP, Listen, to coincide with Detroit‘s release. “Music is such a huge part of it,” says Smith. “You can’t talk about Detroit without talking to Motown, so it was just awesome going back in a time machine and learning about all the music of the period and just being well-versed in all the material. I like to call myself a music nerd, so I just went back and got in my catalog and I listened for months before the project.”