It’s been said many times that competition breeds excellence. In the same way that iron sharpens iron, craftsmen who are willing to be challenged by other great people in their craft can only better themselves through competition. It also helps when a lot of love and a little magic is thrown in the mix.
In Showtime’s new documentary that chronicles the rise of Berry Gordy’s Motown Records, filmmakers Gabe and Ben Turner believe that the love and competition that was encouraged and cultivated in the early days of the Detroit-based powerhouse was at the center of the movement that defined the sound of a generation.
“To me, the love and competition amongst the producers was the heartbeat of the organization,” Gabe said. “You’ve got this young, competitive, loving, inspired group of guys writing amazing songs and you couple that with some of the greatest artists of all time realizing all they have to do is walk through the door of that place and they’re going to find people with the ambition that can live up to their talent.”
Hitsville: The Making Of Motown tells the story of how one record company put a working class metropolitan city on the global map, how an irresistible sound inspired the world and how great songwriting can shape how the world sees itself and each other.
The film could also be seen as a character study of Gordy, the maestro of the Motown sound and the grandfather of the movement. The story starts with him and will always end with him. As a young songwriter, Gordy — with a push from a young up-and-coming singer named Smokey Robinson — took out an $800 loan to start his own R&B record company.
From the label’s first million-selling record with The Miracles’ rendition of “Shop Around” to Marvin Gaye’s spiritual rebirth as a protest singer with his groundbreaking What’s Going On, the film beautifully weaves together the time from the record company’s birth in 1958 to its eventual relocation to Los Angeles in the 1970s.
While the sheer joy of watching visionaries like Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and so many other shine in the early stages of their careers, the film details how the music of Motown energized a nation during a period of significant racial tensions in America and amid the growing civil rights movement. “Once we started thinking about the story of Motown, it felt so relevant,” Gabe said.
In the beginning, they sought out to make a movie that celebrates the music and one that will make people happy. They feel like they did that, and then some.
There’s a particularly poignant moment in the film — at a time when the Motown sound is already sweeping the nation — when the group finally decides to take its show on the road.
Some of the label’s most popular acts and artists went on a multiple-stop bus tour down South, where racial tensions were very real and evident. At a show in Columbia, South Carolina, the theater had a velvet rope that divided the entire theater. Blacks on one side, whites on the other. At one point, Smokey Robinson told a promoter that if those ropes stayed up at their shows, Motown artists would refuse to play.
Sooner or later, rope or no rope, the crowds slowly started to mingle with each other, danced side by side and enjoyed the music together, as one. Ben said that one thing Motown signifies is unity. That idea, he said, came from the way Gordy put together Motown Records.
“There’s a piece in the film where Mr. Gordy says, ‘I wanted to win.’ He didn’t mind who people were, where they came from, he just wanted the best people,” Ben said. “He worked with people from all backgrounds, men, women. He wanted the best people for the job and community to come together and work for the sake of the music.”
The film highlights how financially successful it is to pump out hit after hit, but the movie and Motown is much bigger than that. The filmmakers wanted to depict how Motown became not just the sound of Young America in certain cities and communities, but the sound of Young America, period.
The record company’s music and post-racial vision guided the country — and the world – through a trying time in history.
As filmmakers, Gabe and Ben found a lesson in the words of Gordy. Near the end of the film, Gordy admits that early on in the Motown experience, he realized he wasn’t the best songwriter or musician in the room. What made him great was his ability to make everyone around him better and reach their potential. “He realized his talent was making other people amazing and bringing it together, and what a wonderful sentiment that is,” Ben said.
Dr. Dre said that what Gordy built was his inspiration for Death Row Records and Afterlife Entertainment. If a Motown record was out, you had to buy it. The filmmakers agreed that it’s hard to imagine a record label dominating in today’s music industry.
After talking to some of the country’s best songwriters, producers, engineers, musicians and artists, the Turner brothers still aren’t sure just what makes a great song. “Those songs that just stay with you — whether it be the lyrics or the music — that to me is the greatness,” Gabe said. “How you do that I have no idea. But you know it when you hear it.”