Hitsville: The Making Of Motown

An overview of the early days of Motown, the record company founded by Berry Gordy on just $800 that went onto become one of the biggest forces in entertainment gifting the world Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, the Jackson Five and The Temptations. to name a few.

By Ian Freer | Posted 10 days ago

Sponsored by Motown, Hitsville: The Making Of Motown is a soft but enjoyable overview of the birth of America’s hit factory, mostly relayed by its engaging founder Berry Gordy.

Just as the company took its cue from the production line of Detroit’s car factories, so Gabe and Ben Turner’s film documents each stage of the process (finding artists, production, image crafting) through talking heads and great archival performance footage. So we get to listen in on quality-control meetings debating the merits of each song, a visit to the first Motown studio where songs were recorded in the bathroom (aka The Echo Chamber), fun stories from the early days (Martha Reeves was a ‘secretary’ who filled a spot as a singer to please visiting money-men and never looked back) and insight into how the stars’ images were cultivated (The Supremes were the longest act in development and dubbed ‘The No Hit Supremes’).

This is all played out with a great roster of talking heads, both participants (Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson) and fans (Dr. Dre, Jamie Foxx, Oprah Winfrey. Van Morrison) plus spectacular material from the vaults; early auditions by The Jackson 5 and images of a tour of the segregated south are priceless. Yet what the film doesn’t do is come with any sense of conflict (a bust-up with Gordy’s ex-wife Diana Ross, who doesn’t appear, is hinted at but never fully explored) or point of view: the film suggests that Gordy’s model of treating like artists like cars has its flaws but doesn’t venture far enough to criticise. There’s barely a dissenting voice in the whole 112 minutes.

As the story moves into the late ’60s, Motown increasingly becomes more successful — meeting Martin Luther King and branching out into television and film — but comes under fire (particularly from the Black Panther movement) for not being socially conscious. This resulted in Gordy’s reluctance to release Marvin Gaye’s groundbreaking ‘What’s Going On?’ album but again this desire to not alienate any part of his audience is barely examined.

Hitsville works best in two ways; as a touching portrait of the friendship between Gordy and Smokey Robinson — there’s a lovely moment where the two argue over who had a hit with ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ first — and as a testament to the genius of the songs themselves. Gordy talks about how Blues music taught him to simplify and the raft of hits that follow are exercises in effortless tunes and simple sentiments — a section devoted the creation of ‘My Girl’ is instructive in how Gordy and co crafted so many three-and-a-half-minute mini-masterpieces. Lacking a telling take on its subject, this might be the best way to enjoy Hitsville: a compilation of the some of the catchiest, sweetest, most joyous pop ever created.

An entertaining look at a musical institution, what Hitsville: The Making Of Motown lacks in penetrating insight and a nose for controversy, it makes up for in great archival footage and tunes that — even 50 years on — remain heaven sent.