Celebrating the 60th anniversary of one of the most successful and impactful recording labels of all time, Showtime released the documentary “Hitsville: The Making of Motown” on Aug. 24. The star-studded documentary is the first with founder Berry Gordy’s involvement and is implemented with tons of exclusive footage and anecdotes from the artists themselves.
Founded in 1959, Motown developed an immensely talented and generation-defining group of artists. This included Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Jackson 5 and many more. Not only were these artists the cornerstone of the emerging scene of popular music we see today, their remarkable success arrived at the center of the civil rights movement.
At the time of the label’s creation, Gordy discusses how working at a Ford Motor Company in Detroit inspired him to run his company with an assembly-line mindset. “Hitsville” offers viewers an insight into Gordy’s business sense as he explains the process of finding writers and producers, developing artists and marketing the artists through booking appearances and tours. Instead of sequencing an order of events, the documentary implements the Gordy assembly-line model as a foundation for navigating the story.
Most of “Hitsville” revolves around the perspective of Gordy and legendary singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson. Shot at the original Hitsville U.S.A headquarters—now incorporated into its own museum—in Detroit, viewers get to see Gordy and Robinson reminisce fondly on the golden years of the label in front of the piano in Studio A where a lot of the magic happened. From casually name-dropping all of the talent that walked through those doors to little arguments about which version of “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” was recorded first, the portrait of their long-standing friendship is delightful to see.
Besides stories from Gordy and Robinson, the documentary also features reflections from artists Stevie Wonder, the Jacksons, the Temptations’ Otis Williams and more. One of the most impressive parts of the film was their inclusion of the songwriters, arrangers and producers that truly shaped the era like the trio Holland-Dozier-Holland. They are most well-known for creating 10 out of the Supremes’ 12 U.S. number one singles—”Baby Love” and “Stop! In the Name of Love” to name a few. As incredible as they are, the main artist or group usually gets all the recognition so it was exceptional for them to honor the ones behind the sound.
Part of Gordy’s assembly-line method were quality control meetings on the creative output from the artists. The documentary featured a few tape recordings from these meetings and hilariously enough, one of the topics discussed was whether or not The Temptations’ “My Girl” was a hit—obviously having no clue what the infectious song would soon become.
For those who love to deep dive into the music, the way “Hitsville” broke down certain tracks like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” was very elaborate and impactful—showcasing the original studio tracks layer-by-layer. Seeing footage of a young Stevie Wonder performing “Fingertips” and a 9-year-old Michael Jackson channeling James Brown during the Jackson 5’s audition reminded us once again how remarkable these visionaries are. It’s difficult to think of any other label that had this much natural talent and pure artistry.
As much as “Hitsville” covered, they only focused on 1959 to the early 1970s and not much else after that era. With as many iconic artists as there was on that label, it seemed to skim through a lot of crucial moments in regards to defining aspects of their work. For time’s sake, they couldn’t really dive into all of them—separate documentaries could be made on each one of them alone.
There is no denying that the impact Motown’s music had on not only America, but the world was unforgettable. This celebrated era of music was soulful, upbeat, reflective of the world and most of all, had a forever kind of quality to it that was paramount.
Rylee Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @rybyjackson.