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"Hitsville" documentary digs deep into Motown's success, legacy
Ben and Gabe Turner liked Motown music before they were tapped to direct "Hitsville: The Making of Motown," a documentary celebrating the famed Detroit record label's 60th anniversary, which premieres at 9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 24, on Showtime.
Now it's turned into a genuine love affair with the city as well as the company.
"We were fans before, and even bigger now," Gabe Turner affirms by phone from Los Angeles, where the British-born brothers' Fulwell 73 company produces CBS' "The Late Late Show" among other projects. "I think when you study something you become even more of a fan and you have a different appreciation of what it is.
"There's so much of Motown that you don't necessarily equate with a particular label," Turner, 38, adds. "Everyone knows every Motown song without always knowing where it comes from or how they know it. My wedding video was cut to 'Heat Wave.' When my wife gave birth to our second child, she asked me to put the Supremes on. There's loads of points in so many people's lives that Motown has been the soundtrack for."
The Turners were tapped to direct "Hitsville" two years ago by Capitol Music Group Chairman and CEO Steve Barnett, who oversees Motown's current operations and was impressed by the Turners' documentary "The Class of '92" about the Manchester United soccer (football to them) team in England. Kicking on the pitch to dancing in the street? Absolutely, according to the directors.
"That film was about soccer but also about the wider culture and society around it," Gabe Turner recalls. "(Barnett) felt that although very different, there were elements of the film that could really work for Motown and tell the Motown story that hadn't been properly told."
Ben Turner, 42, adds that, "Our thing is to look for resonance beyond the day-to-day story. The template is to show that (the subject) has more significance than the story itself. It comes out of ... how can we make this interesting to our mum?"
The fast-paced and richly detailed "Hitsville" covers a great deal of ground during its nearly two hours, from Motown's beginnings even before 1959, when company founder Berry Gordy Jr. received a loan from his family trust and was in other businesses, including writing songs for Jackie Wilson, to its early '70s move to Los Angeles. The Turners who made several visits to Detroit to shoot at locations such as the Motown Museum, the Roostertail, Cliff Bell's, Bert's Market Place and more in particular gravitated to Gordy's time working for the Ford Motor Co. and how he applied the assembly line process to make music, a full-service operation that made, promoted and sold records and also groomed its artists with lessons in etiquette and stage technique. The Turners even came up with a kind of Zen diagram of the Motown structure that serves as an index throughout the film.
"Berry told us how he had a few businesses that had failed and ended up on the Ford production line, thinking 'I could do this for artists and musicians bring in the raw materials, send them to different stations where they can learn to sing and dance, and come out the other side a star," Ben Turner says. "We thought that was so fascinating, and unique.
"And we also tapped into the social scope of it; A lot of these kids came from the projects nearby, and (Motown) taught them how to act and carry themselves in order to project as stars."
The film includes much archival footage along with interviews of Gordy as well as artists such as Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, the Supremes' Mary Wilson, Martha Reeves, the Temptations' Otis Williams, the Four Tops' Duke Fakir, the Miracles' Claudette Robinson and many more. "Hitsville" also features remembrances from Motown's chief songwriters and producers (Holland-Dozier-Holland, Valerie Simpson, the late Norman Whitfield) as well as executives (Barney Ales, Mickey Stevenson, Suzanne de Passe, Miller London, Brenda Boyce) and other staffers. The Turners also had access to Gordy's private archives, including priceless recordings made during the company's famed Quality Control meetings among them an extensive discussion about the Temptations' iconic "My Girl" with Gordy expressing doubts about its hit potential.
Neil Young speaks about his time with the Mynah Birds, a rock act from Toronto that was briefly signed to Motown, while Dr. Dre, John Legend, Jamie Foxx, Little Richard, Sam Smith and former Billboard editor Adam White offer admiring perspective about Motown's impacts. While Diana Ross did not participate, the Turners had also made arrangements to speak to Aretha Franklin for the film, but she died before the interview could be filmed.
The heart of "Hitsville," however, comes from extensive scenes with Gordy and Robinson still each others' best friends together, cruising through Detroit in a vintage Cadillac and cutting up in the "snake pit" at Studio A in Motown's original Hitsville USA headquarters on West Grand Boulevard (now the Motown Museum).
The two men even argue about which version of "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" was recorded first, with Gordy winning $100 from Robinson for knowing that Marvin Gaye's version was recorded first, even though Gladys Knight & the Pips' rendition was released before it.
"That relationship was key to us," Ben Turner says. "To see how they interact. ... There is a magic when they're together that you can't get in a book. That magic infused the company and informed their songs, and we were keen to find a way of capturing that on camera. In a way that's what's the most unique thing about this film in terms of how the Motown story had been told before."
Motown Museum CEO Robin Terry adds that, It was something special for viewers to witness the genuine friendship and love between these two prolific songwriters filmed where it all began at Hitsville. The documentary allows you to see how not only their talents, but their friendship, is so integral to the Motown family and the ultimate success of the record company.
In addition to the Showtime run, "Hitsville" will be accompanied by a just-released soundtrack album, and a home video release is planned. The Turners, meanwhile covet their experience digging into the Motown story and getting to spend time in Detroit where they headquarted at the Foundation hotel and also "fell in love" with the Pistons.
"We once made a Netflix series about our hometown team, Sunderland, which was kind of the Cleveland Browns of (soccer)," Ben Turner explains. "We gravitate toward the underdog like that."
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