The mantra for bringing 1983’s iconic Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever NBC special to DVD is: better (a little bit) late than never.
Yes, 30 years would have been the optimal target for the StarVista Entertainment/Time Life set, which comes out Sept. 30 in a single-disc package, a 3-DVD set and a deluxe 6-DVD set, the latter two featuring several hours of bonus, unreleased performances and documentary features from the making of the special.
“We finally conquered… the most challenging part of releasing this, which is the clearances and the ability to do a new 5.1 Surround Sound mix,” Motown 25 producer Suzanne DePasse explained during a conference call about the release. “We’ve tried over the years, and we were always stymied by the question of who was going to take on the responsibility of the clearances. Time Life, I think, recognized that this is kind of an evergreen piece, and even though it’s 31 years later, that there would be a sufficient interest in reliving what Motown 25 was all about.”
Motown 25 was indeed a revelation, vaulting the label back into the spotlight at a time when the company — built in Detroit by Berry Gordy, Jr. to become the world’s most successful black-owned enterprise — was suffering a commercial ebb (Gordy eventually sold Motown in 1988). Filmed on March 25, 1983 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium and aired May 16, the show won an Emmy Award and a George Foster Peabody Award, and had a huge viewership buzzing about its all-star performances — including Michael Jackson’s debut of his moonwalk steps during “Billie Jean” after a Jackson 5 reunion, a vocal “battle” between the Temptations and the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye’s passionate remembrance about Motown before singing “What’s Going On” and the public debut of Smokey Robinson’s Motown Company Song. Tongues also wagged about a few controversial moments, most notably the clear rancor between Diana Ross and Mary Wilson during a Supremes reunion at the end of the show.
“It was a great coming back together of what I would call the family,” the Four Tops’ Abdul “Duke” Fakir told Billboard during the same call. “It was like we all came back together for Thanksgiving dinner. We appreciated and loved every moment that we were taping, and we really felt that this was going to be extremely special.” DePasse added, “I don’t think until Motown 25 the rest of the world really got to understand that, regardless of anything else, the coming back together was the greater good and the bigger feeling of love and appreciation of what (the artists) had experienced together.”
The Motown 25 DVDs offer plenty of peeks behind the scenes of the concert. For instance, while Gaye’s performance of “What’s Going On?” and his passionate preamble were silky smooth on TV, it was anything but during the taping. “When we were looking at the rehearsal footage of Marvin Gaye, I had actually forgotten how really funny he was,” DePasse said. “He was supposed to come up on this elevator stage thing, but when you see it, it bumps and grinds and he’s sitting there on the piano. He was supposed to rise up on this piano, and the thing just wouldn’t work. His reaction to that, I had forgotten how hilarious it was… his sense of humor about ‘not going down there again’ and sort of the twinkle in his eye about that. I had clearly forgotten how sweet he was and how ridiculous the mechanics were.”
The Tempts ‘n’ Tops “duel,” meanwhile, was coordinated by Diana Ross’ musical director Gil Askey, and was another aspect of the show that took on a life of its own. “I don’t think any of us had an inkling that it was going to be what it became,” DePasse said, “because what the guys brought to it was the personality and the fun and the one-upsmanship and competition for not just the audience but for themselves. It just took on a life of its own and it really reflected the spirit of what was going on during our rehearsals.”
The two groups have been “battling” ever since, touring and performing together regularly. “After… we looked at a replay, we said, ‘This is something we need to take on the road,’ ” Fakir says. “Originally we talked about maybe Smokey (Robinson) would do it. At first he said me might, but Smokey had some other obligations and said he really couldn’t do it. So we said, ‘Well, we’ll do it alone like we did on TV,’ and we just started selling it. It’s been going just like that ever since, and it’s just absolutely amazing. It has extended both of our careers well into overtime, which I appreciate.”
The Motown 25 DVDs offer even more insights into the show via interviews with other production principals, including director/producer Don Mischer and head writer Buz Kohan, as well as Motown artists and executives. “There’s like… 700 minutes (of extras) for a two-hour show,” DePasse noted, “but that just proves to me how much people really were touched and influenced by and enjoyed the show. I’m just as pleased as punch that these years have gone by but the interest in the program has really not diminished.”