Young, gifted and black – and so many of them. Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson: all under one roof in a suburban house in Detroit, a sign hanging above the porch: “Hitsville, USA”.
The 60th anniversary of Motown records is marked by this celebratory official documentary that tells in exhaustive detail the story of how Berry Gordy Jr built his record label. It’s a film that strikes the reverential tone of authorised biography, everyone blandly on message. Still, the archive footage of artists – some barely out of high school – making music with expressions of pure joy on their faces gives you goosebumps.
The movie hangs on the good-natured charm of Gordy and Robinson fondly reminiscing. Gordy is a natural-born businessman. Working on the shop floor at Ford gave him the idea of creating a hit factory on the production-line principle: a kid walks in as an unknown and leaves a star. To that end, he brought everything in-house: producers and writers, musicians, a dance teacher and an etiquette mistress. He cultivated competitiveness among his artists with X-Factor style quality control meetings; everyone had a vote on which songs made the cut.
“The colour of the business was green,” says Gordy, meaning Motown was for anyone willing to fork out their hard-earned dollars for a record, black or white. In the end, he turned out to be a bastion of conservative values – alarmed when Marvin Gaye went off script and started singing about police brutality and Vietnam.
But the dominance of his label changed music and the culture. There’s a lovely clip of Oprah Winfrey gushing about the moment she saw Diana Ross and the Supremes on The Ed Sullivan Show. As Jamie Foxx puts it: “The only time you saw black people on TV was when something terrible happened.”