Like any official documentary, Hitsville: The Making of Motown, which celebrates 60 years of the iconic record label, is largely about protecting the brand, and there’s a lot of gloss here. Ignoring the lawsuits, addiction and fraught relationships, the film focuses predominantly on the 1960s and firmly on the artists, the music and the context of America’s racial tensions and civil-rights movement (and also many of the unsung talents behind the scenes).
But, interestingly, it pays a lot less attention to Diana Ross – with whom Motown founder Berry Gordy had an affair and a daughter – than Motown 40: The Music Is Forever did 20 years ago. In fact, Ross wasn’t even interviewed for this film. The vast majority of Hitsville, which is directed by Gabe and Benjamin Turner, is anchored by Gordy and his friend and colleague Smokey Robinson, and one of the many joys here is the genuine warmth, chemistry and respect between them. A big plus is the use of previously unseen footage from Motown’s archives and Gordy’s personal collection (he is executive producer too).
There are plenty of famous record labels associated with a particular city (Chess Records, Sun Records, Factory) but none has quite the same intimate relationship as that between Motown and Detroit, where the migration of black workers from the South to the city’s car plants laid the foundations of its success. Gordy himself was working on the Ford assembly line when he had the revelation: “I can do this with people.” Although, as Hitsville shows, up to a point, Lord Copper. Many of the artists Gordy helped to shape and form within a fiercely competitive if supposedly family environment ultimately wanted to be free of his rigid production system, whose mantra was ‘find, sign, develop’.
The film’s structure is based on a schematic diagram of a Motown assembly line, which we keep cutting back to, moving more or less chronologically from chapters with titles such as ‘Unlocking Potential’, ‘Artist Development’, ‘Cycle of Success’ and ‘Transcending the Production Line’. A lot of the shots of talking heads and recreated scenes are packed with visual annotations that will probably be missed if you’re not paying close attention, especially if you don’t catch a name (they are not repeated in subsequent shots). This is OK with Smokey Robinson but less so with head of A&R Mickey Stevenson, say.
Some of the film is somewhat literal where it really doesn’t need to be – for example, when Gordy mentions his phone ringing, there’s a… you guessed it. One rather funny shot is of the tape rewinding when Gordy and Robinson want to settle a $100 bet about who first recorded I Heard It Through the Grapevine (Gordy, as ever, wins).
Motown songs changed towards the end of the 1960s because the world changed, and even Gordy had to accept this eventually. He thought Cloud Nine, the ‘psychedelic’ Temptations song released in 1969, was about drugs (of course it was!) and wanted nothing to do with it, and he told Marvin Gaye that What’s Going On? was just too political. Gaye’s masterpiece is one of the songs that Hitsville really lets breathe as the layers of his voice, conga drums and so on are slowly added. There’s also a brilliant dissection of how My Girl was written.
It’s hard not to simply marvel at the quality of the music from that time (the film doesn’t really go into the move from ‘Hitsville USA‘ in Detroit, now a museum, to LA in the early 1970s): the genius of Stevie Wonder even at 11 years old, the brilliance of the house band The Funk Brothers, The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, The Temptations. And then there’s Michael Jackson’s jaw-dropping audition with The Jackson 5 in 1968 and his cover of Smokey Robinson’s Who’s Lovin’ You, a poignant reminder of some of the darkness that was to form part of the Motown story, but which is largely absent here.