Back in the mid-’60s, Berry Gordy Jr. commissioned Smokey Robinson to pen the “Motown Company Song,” which declared the iconic record label “a very swinging company.”
Motown has indeed been swinging through its 60th anniversary celebration this year, which has already included a Grammy Salute special on CBS. The party moves to Showtime with Hitsville: The Making of Motown, a documentary debuting Aug. 24 on Showtime. Premieres were held earlier this month in Los Angeles and on Friday night (Aug. 23) when about 20 Motown alumni — including members of the Vandellas, the Velvelettes and the Contours as well as behind-the-scenes staffers — and guests gathered for an invitation-only screening hosted by the Motown Museum in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak.
“There’s a good vibe to the film,” Funk Brothers guitarist Dennis Coffey, whose guitar licks for the Temptations “Cloud Nine” and “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” were heard during the film, told Billboard afterwards. “Everyone involved told a good story about Berry’s vision and how it came to fruition.” Longtime Motown executive Miller London, whose eight hours of interviews with the filmmakers turned into a few minutes in the final cut, added that, “I thought it’s the first time I’ve ever seen the story told so right about Berry and what he did here. It’s impossible to tell it all in two hours, but they did a good job.”
Claudette Robinson of the Miracles — known as the First Lady of Motown — saw Hitsville for a second time on Friday and found it just as exciting. “It caught the spirit, and there were times it was also emotional,” she said. “We were teenagers when this all happened; Now I’m a grandmother.”
Hitsville was directed by Ben and Gabe Turner, British-born brothers whose Fulwell 73 company produces CBS’ The Late Late Show among other projects. The duo was tapped by Capitol Music Group Chairman and CEO Steve Barnett, who was impressed by the Turners’ documentary The Class of ’92 about Manchester United, the English Premier League team. “That film was about soccer but also about the wider culture and society around it,” Gabe Turner recalls. “[Barnett] felt that although very different, there were elements of the film that could really work for Motown and tell the Motown story that hadn’t been properly told.”
The fast-paced and richly detailed Hitsville covers plenty of ground during its nearly two hours, from Gordy’s pre-Motown work as a boxer, record store owner and songwriter through the company’s move to Los Angeles during the early ’70s and Marvin Gaye’s landmark album What’s Going On. The Turners focus particularly on Gordy’s methodology, operating a record label like the assembly line he worked on for the Ford Motor Company, creating a full-service operation that made, promoted and sold records and also groomed its artists with lessons in etiquette and stage technique. The Turners even came up with a kind of Venn diagram of the Motown structure that serves as a kind of index throughout the film.
“Berry told us how he had a few businesses that had failed and ended up on the Ford production line, thinking ‘I could do this for artists and musicians — bring in the raw materials, send them to different stations where they can learn to sing and dance, and come out the other side a star,” Ben Turner says. “We thought that was so fascinating, and unique. And we also tapped into the social scope of it; A lot of these kids came from the projects nearby, and (Motown) taught them how to act and carry themselves in order to project as stars.”
The film features a treasure trove of archival footage and images along with interviews with Gordy and the Robinsons (Smokey and Claudette) as well as artists — including Neil Young talking about his brief tenure at Motown with the Mynah Birds — songwriters, producers and company executives and staffers. Dr. Dre, John Legend, Jamie Foxx, Little Richard, Sam Smith and former Billboard editor and Motown biographer Adam White offer their perspectives and commentary. The Turners were unable to secure Diana Ross; they’d made arrangements to speak to Aretha Franklin, but she passed away last August before the interview could be filmed. Both are included via archival interviews, along with deceased figures such as Marvin Gaye and Norman Whitfield.
Highlights from Hitsville include extensive segments about the Temptations’ iconic “My Girl,” What’s Going On and the Motortown Revue’s encounters with racism in the deep South. The Turners also had access to Gordy’s private archives, including priceless recordings made during the company’s famed Quality Control meetings — among them an extensive discussion about “My Girl” with several participants expressing doubts about its hit potential.
The heart of Hitsville, however, comes from extensive scenes with Gordy and Robinson — still each other’s best friend — together, cruising through Detroit in a vintage Cadillac and cutting up in the “snakepit” at Studio A in Motown’s original Hitsville USA headquarters (now the Motown Museum). The two men even argue about which version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” was recorded first, with Gordy winning $100 from Robinson for knowing Marvin Gaye’s rendition preceded Gladys Knight & the Pips’, though the latter was the first to be released.
“That relationship was key to us,” Ben Turner says. “To see how they interact… There is a magic when they’re together that you can’t get in a book. That magic infused the company and informed their songs, and we were keen to find a way of capturing that on camera. In a way that’s what’s the most unique thing about this film in terms of how the Motown story had been told before.”
In addition to the Showtime run, Hitsville is accompanied by a soundtrack album, while a home video release is planned for the future. Motown’s 60th anniversary celebration, meanwhile, continues with a weekend of events next month, including a Motown Gospel Concert on Sept. 21, a Hitsville Honors concert — featuring the Temptations, the Four Tops, Mary Wilson of the Supremes, Martha Reeves, Big Sean, KEM and Ne-Yo — the following day and a Soul In One Celebrity Golf Classic outing on Sept. 23.
Details can be found at motownmuseum.org.