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MOTOWN 25

Review by Norman Kelsey

Stars:  Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Miracles, The Supremes, The Jackson 5, Richard Pryor, Martha Reeves, Billy Dee Williams
Director:  Don Mischer
Audio:  Dolby 5.1 Surround (Main Program Only); Dolby Digital Stereo
Video:  Color Full Screen
Studio:  StarVista Entertainment/Time Life
Features:  See Review
Length:  458 Minutes, 3 DVD’s
Release Date:  September 30, 2014

It’s music pure and simple and hard and soulful, if you insist. Full of promise and determination. Unity and humanity. My loved ones, today is the birthplace of forever.” 

Show ****

Motown. Iconic.

You are watching this because it is quintessential entertainment. 

Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever was an Emmy-winning television special celebrating the music created by one, black-owned record label that nicknamed itself “Hitsville.” Tamla/Motown has provided the Sound of Young America for generations. Songs like “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” “Uptight,” “Stop! In The Name of Love,” “I Want You Back,” and “Tears of a Clown” are the snowflake on the tip of an iceberg of hits produced by Berry Gordy’s musical machine. 

It’s almost unfathomable that so much talent could have gathered on one stage for one moment in time. For those of us who watched it in real time, it was unbelievable. No DVR. No YouTube. Even VCRs were uncommon. You couldn’t pause. You couldn’t rewind. You had to catch your breath at a commercial break to say, “Did I just witness that?” “Did we just hear that?” This Monday night TV special became Tuesday’s water-cooler fodder and school playground dance challenges. If you didn’t watch
 Motown 25, you weren’t cool.

A new generation was inspired by these classic Motor City artists; and the whole nation thrilled to what the kids were already hip to. Though nostalgia was in the house, this was hardly a night of oldies. Outside of a handful of revue-style cameos, these were all vital performers being showcased in primetime in a manner that had never been seen in the history of television. Two hours dedicated to black musicians and black popular culture that had been embraced by the world.

You may have seen portions of Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever online, snippets on other programs, etc. Now, you can watch the performances in the context of the entire night. The tempo of the special is as important as the sequence of an album of songs, programmed to bring you out of your seat, soothe your soul, then make you dance in the street. Can I get a witness?

Many top acts on the bill that night had fled Motown for other major record companies (including Ross, Jackson and Gaye). They had to be convinced to return and reunite to celebrate the label for its 25th anniversary. The event wound up being a star-studded homecoming with act after act competing to out-do one another in traditional Motown fashion. The special was hosted by comedian Richard Pryor who was connected to Motown through their movies (The Wiz, Lady Sings The Blues). His groovy, laid back style was a perfect fit for the proceedings.

With the exception of DeBarge and High Inergy (Motown’s soft attempts at homegrown talent in 1983), the show’s lineup reads like an entire wing of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. There are prime performances to relish from Smokey Robinson who remains one of the greatest vocalists, writers and producers ever. He leads the reunited Miracles through a series of hits and gets a shot at performing his contemporary chart-toppers bringing down the house at each turn.

Not to be outdone is Stevie Wonder. The Motown artist with the widest ranging career with the label, Stevie brings church, funk and soul to the stage in “I Wish” to kick off his brass-driven set. 

Motown 25 features highlight performances from luminaries like Martha Reeves and Mary Wells. Guest vocalist Linda Ronstadt joins Smokey for duets that merit mention, too.

In a segment that launched a second career for two of Motown’s longest running acts, the ferocious Dennis Edwards leads the Temptations against the sure-voiced Levi Stubbs fronting the Four Tops. This choreographed vocal battle is Motown music at its most joyful and spine-tingling. These two groups still tour together to this day to showcase this “battle.” This portion of the show contains more hits-per-second than imaginable. Anyone who has turned on a radio in the past 50 years will be able to sing along with the entire medley.

Even the parts that are dated are worth watching. The show does have a time-capsule feel when we hear Dick Clark talk about the impact of black culture or the stars of WKRP in Cincinnati riffing. Some might guffaw at the inclusion of New Romantic sensation Adam Ant. He was huge in early 1983 with “Goody Two Shoes” and was a draw for the MTV crowd. No spoilers, but his New Wave performance of “Where Did Our Love Go” is not to be missed. Billy Dee Williams’ presentation on the films of Motown and the Lester Wilson Dancers are distinctly of their time. These moments are important, however, to understand the continuity of the event and where Motown was in 1983. 

Three key sequences made the show a landmark in entertainment history. 

Starting with the end. Diana Ross’ participation in a Supremes reunion was a chief reason the show made it to air. The Boss commands the stage not just like the groundbreaking diva she is; she commands the house, the other acts, the song and Mr. Gordy. She is clearly the heart of Motown. She is the template for every solo pop recording artist to follow in her wake. Male or female. Watch her, without singing a note, define what Madonna, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and even Michael Jackson have spent careers attempting to recreate in connecting with their audiences.

Then, there is the prodigal son. Spring of 1983, Marvin Gaye was riding high on his comeback hit for CBS records, “Sexual Healing,” but he agreed to perform a 12-year old Motown classic instead. His rendition of “What’s Going On” may be one of the most moving vocal performances you will experience in this lifetime. The intro to the song is Marvin reciting a bit of free verse written for him for the occasion. He accompanies himself brilliantly on the piano. It is the most intimate segment of the evening and encourages the viewer to listen. To listen... Before the band comes roaring to life. It is a celebration of music, a celebration of the voice and a celebration of Marvin’s ability to conjure magic out of thin air. “What’s Going On” is arguably the most important song Motown ever produced and it remains relevant to this day. It is impossible however to watch this performance without a profound sense of sadness. Marvin Gaye would be taken from the world in a fashion so cruel and confusing within a year of this appearance that fans and friends still cannot fathom the loss.

Finally, there was the kid. This is the Michael Jackson that is forever burned into the collective conscience of the universe. The fedora. The glove. That move. All had been done before. Let’s be real. But no one had done them like that. No one had put them all together like that. Live. On national television. With everything on the line. But that was Michael. Long before he was “Bad.” He was BAD. There are no words to actually describe that night’s performance of “Billie Jean.” Words cannot properly define the excitement that MJ generated in the Pasadena Civic Auditorium that night or in our households on TV weeks later. It is simply the most exciting six seconds in the history of live television. 

The concert/party crescendos to a close with a hopeful message. Diana has made sure to include us. Those wonderful performers (some still on the road, many more long gone) frozen in time, leaving us a trove of art, movement and song all from a little upstart record label out of Detroit.

Audio ***

The Motown Sound leaps out in 5.1 Surround. You will be dancing in your living room like it’s 1983. Some performances are more potent than others due to being live renditions versus pre-recorded tracks (“Billie Jean”). Notably, Stevie Wonder’s funky set, Marvin Gaye’s stirring performance and the Temptations/Four Tops Battle benefit from the fantastic sound. 

Video **

The video is exactly that. The limitations of the original source video are evident. But you are not watching this for the quality of the picture. 

Features ***

Disc One: This DVD version of Motown 25 features 30 minutes restored to the program that didn’t make it to the original broadcast; performers roundtable (part 1) & featurette on the Making Of.

The remaining three featurettes, six interviews and two roundtables are spread evenly across the two bonus discs. Some of the behind-the-scenes material gets redundant as you move forward through the discs, but it is fascinating. Hearing from the handful of surviving Motown veterans (Robinson, Otis Williams of the Temptations, Duke Fakir of the Four Tops, Claudette Robinson of the Miracles and Martha Reeves) is a treasure.

The highlights are the Marvin Gaye Rehearsal, What’s Going On: Marvin Gaye (both Disc 2) and Come and Get These Memories: Inside Hitsville (Disc 3) featurettes. Anytime you hear contemporaries (and writers like Nelson George) discuss Marvin Gaye or the experience of working at the original Motown home in Detroit you’re in for a treat. 

The Marvin Gaye Rehearsal is worth the price of admission alone. To watch Marvin work through multiple takes of his intro and “What’s Going On” are revelatory. Each one is nuanced and you get a sense of his humor, humility and artistry. Had MJ not performed “Billie Jean,” Marvin’s televised comeback is what Motown 25 would be remembered for.

Note: Motown über-fans, there is an exhaustive 6-disc 16 hour mega-set that includes an exclusive collector’s book, a copy of the
 Motown 25 program and more bonus material available. 

Summary:

This is required viewing for fans of Motown, popular music and American culture. 90% of the performances are just out of control for their sheer brilliance and historic value. The other 10% are interesting to see what was considered viable to withstand the pressure of being up against juggernauts like Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. Even if you just go for the single disc of the Motown 25 concert, you can’t go wrong. Fans of Marvin Gaye must seek out the second disc.

Trivia: Where was Rick James, Motown’s biggest star circa 1983? There are urban legends about his absence from Motown 25. He is mentioned in the introductions of the TV special. His “Bustin’ Out” promo is one of the program’s commercial bumpers. Dig into the bonus materials for hints. We may never know, but wouldn’t it have been fun to see Rick do “Superfreak” with the Temptations at Motown 25?

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