A-Ron’s Stream It Or Skip It: Hitsville USA – The Making Of Motown (2019)

•Now Available On Showtime & Amazon Prime Video To Rent Or Purchase 

You didn’t hear it from the grapevine, but you did hear it here that “Hitsville: The Making Of Motown”, is one of the finest documentaries and films I’ve ever seen. It’s nothing short of electrifying and a pure cinematic joy. Directors the Turner Brothers and hosts Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson, delve into the greatest epicentre of music and the rise of the greatest and most legendary singers known in music history. Filled with fascinating recollections from iconic Motown stars along with rare historical images, displayed in rich three dimensional effects makes Hitsville a captivating visual and sonic treat. Watch this on the biggest tv you can with your home theater cranked up. 

Berry Gordy’s Hitsville USA, with the exception of The Beatles Abbey Road, there has been no place that has had a more profound impact on music over the last 50 years. Hitsville was the greatest epicentre of music and “Hitsville: The Making of Motown” is a pure cinematic joy as directors the Turner Brothers, delve into the rise of some of the greatest and legendary singers known in music history. 

Released by cable provider Showtime, directors Benjamin and Gabe Turner put Berry Gordy, the man behind it all, front and center. Gordy takes us on a tour of his old stomping grounds, known as Hitsville USA the headquarters of Motown Records in Detroit. After leaving his job working the assembly line at Ford Motor Company, Gordy who spent his time as a songwriter structured Motown Records to be modeled after a car manufacturing assembly line. Gordy imagined he could do the same with artists what was done with cars. 

Gordy set up his own stable of soul and R&B artists in the late ’50s and early ’60s: Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross… the list goes on. The film starts as Gordy rifles through his own greatest hits catalogue fondly recalling the music and moments that defined his company. Every sparkling anecdote in the documentary contains valuable insight into how some of Motown’s most iconic records and artists were made.

The hosts of the documentary is the charismatic Berry Gordy (90) and Smokey Robinson(80), who enjoy a joyful rapport between each other. Early on in the film, Robinson recalls being woken up by Berry in the middle of the night, fretting over the pair’s latest single “Shop Around”. They rushed back into the studio at 3am to lay down a new version of the track, despite it having already been put out several weeks earlier. The new and much more upbeat “Shop Around” went on to become the label’s first single to sell over a million copies. It’s just one of many examples of Gordy’s perfectionism and commitment to ensuring that every release had that unmistakable “Motown sound”.

Then there’s the story of Martha Reeves, the accidental superstar whose transformation from A&R secretary to chart-topping diva occurred virtually overnight after she took the mic during an impromptu track recording. Footage of The Temptations and a group of session musicians recording “My Girl” is electrifying and just one of many astonishing archive sequences.

This Turners not only captures the growth of Motown into one of the most successful record companies of the 20th century. They also capture the evolution of Gordy as a businessman as he came to understand that artists are not cars, and music was their expression as individuals. Despite his rejection for engaging in political activities, it was difficult to avoid it as this was particularly important in the 60’s when the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War gripped America. The events only inspired musicians at Motown such as Edwin Starr and Marvin Gaye to pen powerful anti political songs about the state of the nation.

From the start, Motown was like a family and in more ways than one (Marvin Gaye married Gordy’s sister; Gordy had an affair with Diana Ross). Like any family, it was driven with jealousies, resentments, competitiveness and feuds, but the documentary isn’t out to tell us what went wrong, but what went triumphantly right. 

Filled with fascinating recollections from stars such as Martha Reeves, Mary Wells, Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and many of the other key players lay out the story of the legendary record label in their own words alongside incredible archival footage and music that, even 50 years and on remain heaven sent. “Hitsville USA: The Making Of Motown” is compelling from start to finish.

We are blessed with the great privilege of direct access to head honcho Berry Gordy, who does most of the talking when recounting the record label’s remarkable history. The dream access for any filmmaker, directing a documentary or this one in particular is getting both Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson to be the hosts is highly rewarding, as the duo couldn’t be more thrilled to relay the history of the business to the Turner Brothers. 

Placing them in the same room is also a genius move, leading to amazing exchanges on camera as they build upon each other’s memories, including an amusing bit on whether Marvin Gaye recorded “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” before Gladys Knight and the Pips.

The archival footage and audio tracks are astonishing and the archive producers, researchers, and the visual effects team deserve Oscar nominations. The way they are able to manipulate rare historical images and display them in rich three dimensional effects to ensure Hitsville is a captivating visual treat as well as an inherently awesome sonic one. The mind blowing sequence of how Marvin Gaye constructed “What’s Going On” layer by layer is one of many moments that are as beautiful and surprising as any spectacle you’ll see in any cinema.

The Motown story is hardly new territory for the die hard fans, but for others who don’t know as much will be mesmerized by the history. The Turner Brothers tells the Motown story with a big screen flair, incredible archive footage and top-tier interviewees. It’s one of the finest documentaries and films I’ve ever seen. It’s nothing short of electrifying and deserved Oscar recognition (which unfortunately it didn’t). Great music is like great cinema and can be truly life-enhancing. This documentary offers that and so much more. Watch this on the biggest tv you can with your home theater cranked up. What a Film! 

•It’s available now on Showtime and available to purchase on Amazon Prime for rent or purchase. 

GRADE: ★★★★★ (5/5) – STREAM IT!

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros lives on the beautiful island of Maui. He is a member of The Hawaii Film Critics Society, movie critic for Maui Watch, a commentator and cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, learning about movies from his Grandfather and being self taught.

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