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Showtime’s 'Hitsville' Proves Motown Is the Most Essential Record Label Ever

The first documentary made with the blessing and involvement of label founder Berry Gordy focuses primarily on the highlights.

by Josh Terry
Aug 23 2019, 8:22pm

(L-R): Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy in Hitsville: The Making of Motown.  (Photo: Barry Brecheisen, Barry Brecheisen/SHOWTIME)

Showtime's latest documentary Hitsville: The Making of Motown starts off with a jaw-dropping opening scene. Crackling in the background is audio from founder Berry Gordy as he leads one of the record label's famed quality-control meetings, where employees discuss the upcoming release calendar. The caliber of artists he lists off is astounding: Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and the Isley Brothers. It's a pretty staggering cold open, not only for the breadth of talent in one place, but also for how casually Gordy discusses it. As he speaks, title cards of the roster's biggest hits flash on the screen, and all the songs are ubiquitous to anyone with a casual understanding of American music history. There's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "My Girl," "Dancing In The Streets," and "You Can't Hurry Love," to name just a few.

The film, coinciding with Motown's 60th anniversary, proves why the Detroit behemoth remains one of the most ubiquitous and essential record labels of all time. Few labels are as inextricable from a sound to the extent that Motown is. This is the first documentary with Gordy's official blessing and involvement; because of this, directors Gabe and Benjamin Turner can include a ton of exclusive footage and anecdotes that really make the film shine. There's a wealth of archival label footage from the 60s and 70s, exclusive interviews with songwriters like Lamont Dozier and the Holland Brothers (who as a trio penned ten of The Supremes' twelve number one singles), and several immensely charming scenes of Gordy and his label partner Smokey Robinson reminiscing about the past. A particularly funny moment comes as the two argue over a $100 bet of whether or not Gladys Knight recorded her version of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" before Marvin Gaye did.

Motown's success and ethos are very American. The Detroit label was founded in 1959 after Gordy, who at the time was working at a Ford Motor Company plant, had an idea: What if he applied assembly-line logic to a record label? In Gordy's estimation, if you could follow the proper steps by having the right writers and producers, finding and developing artists, making sure their output passes the label's strict quality-control tests, and booking smart tours, success could almost be guaranteed. He turned pop into a production line—and it worked. The timing was perfect, too. With the peak of the civil rights movement, the flashpoint of 60s culture with the introduction of rock 'n' roll and changing sexual norms, and its Detroit home—an extremely segregated city of great economic prosperity—Motown's honest and incredible songs seemed primed to resonate.

Hitsville: The Making of Motown excels at highlighting the good times. Even if the Motown catalog is already very familiar, some of the stories behind the songs are fascinating. One in particular is The Temptations "My Girl," which Smokey Robinson wrote as his sequel to Mary Wells' "My Guy." The iconic guitar riff in that track, which was played by Robert White of Motown house band The Funk Brothers, started as a joke that they ended up keeping in the song. Later, the film shows Paul Riser’s incredible orchestral arrangements being recorded. Breaking down such a ubiquitous and universally beloved song into its elemental parts is probably the documentary's most magical moment. What's even more striking, though, is that in a label quality control meeting, Gordy doubts that the song will be a hit. Other stories behind the songs, like the fact that "Dancing in the Streets" was performed by Motown's A&R secretary Martha Reeves, highlight the label's freewheeling and creatively vibrant office culture.

As much as the spritely 89-year-old label founder brings charm and magnetism to the film, Gordy's involvement also hinders it. There's only a brief mention of the controversies and downtimes in Motown's history, and whole artists are either left out or awarded a disproportionately low amount of time: Diana Ross, who was not interviewed for the film, merits only a few minutes. It's bizarre, given her role in the history of the label and her romantic relationship with Gordy. Even the departure of Holland-Dozier-Holland doesn't merit more than a quick mention, and the film only hints at the several, decades-long lawsuits between the writing trio and Motown. Drugs and alcohol are absent as well, even though they plagued many of the label's best artists. Plus, Motown's decision to leave Detroit for Los Angeles in the 70s is treated as an afterthought rather than the beginning of the end. Though Motown is arguably the most influential and important label ever, it's a shame Hitsville: The Making of Motown only hones in on its ascent.