While Motown’s classic hits of the ’60s and ’70s are prime examples of how to add mainstream appeal to soul music without losing its integrity, any fan who has spent time digging into album cuts and live performances knows of the label’s tendency to sometimes push a little too far into the glitzy pop side of the equation. There’s no better showcase for Motown’s showbizzy ambitions than the 1983 TV special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever (Time-Life), making its DVD debut this fall in one-, three-, and six-disc editions.
In honor of the record company’s 25th year, producer Suzanne de Passe brought together a slew of its biggest hit-makers from the past quarter-century for a one night only concert, filmed in March 1983 and airing on NBC two months later. The special was a surprise smash, and is often credited with rekindling public interest in Motown’s golden era throughout the ’80s, and transforming Michael Jackson from a popular singer to a superstar.
The DVD’s bonus features are generally light and upbeat, but do offer a peek into how difficult the event must have been to orchestrate. Not only did de Passe have to wrangle a huge number of stars for a brief appearance, but nearly everyone who participated had at some point had an acrimonious relationship with either Berry Gordy or their erstwhile groupmates (and usually both). In the latter category, the Supremes reunion that was clearly supposed to form the show’s climax instead only makes it about a minute into a rendition of “Someday We’ll Be Together.” The special presents the song as a group singalong, with most of the night’s performers joining the former girl group on stage, but rumor has it that an onstage dust-up between Mary Wilson and Diana Ross (edited out of the broadcast) cut the reunion short.
“It’s not about who left, it’s about who came back. And tonight, everbody came back,” Ross declares during the finale. But not everybody was invited back — for starters, the show’s missing the Marvelettes, Edwin Starr, and Gladys Knight & the Pips — and those who did perform weren’t given equal treatment. The artists with the biggest star power were treated to longer sets where they could perform full-length versions of their songs. The most notable of these is Michael Jackson’s performance of his then-latest single “Billie Jean” — a song not even released through Motown — that’s longer than the Jackson 5 reunion just before it. Meanwhile, Martha Reeves, Mary Wells, Junior Walker, and a Lionel Ritchie-less Commodores are granted less than 30 seconds apiece to perform a snippet of their best-known song.
The shafting of these artists feels particularly egregious when you add up the time devoted to the two showcases for the Lester Wilson Dancers, the awful “Motown: A Fairy Tale” monologue that host Richard Pryor seems embarrassed to deliver, and full-length performances from non-Motown artists (particularly Adam Ant’s hammy, hypersexual reading of “Where Did Our Love Go”). Even more mindboggling, the backing music used in the special isn’t the classic Funk Brothers instrumentation — the sound that made Motown — but chintzy orchestral rerecordings.
Despite the questionable decisions, many of which were probably necessary to ensure key artist participation, there’s one thing that makes Motown 25 essential: the performances. Unless you count Michael Jackson and then-current Motown acts DeBarge and High Inergy, none of the artists are exactly at the height of their powers, yet all are still relatively young and in terrific voice. It’s touching to see groups like the Miracles and the Jackson 5 set aside their difficult histories for one night, while the “battle of the bands” face-off between the Temptations and the Four Tops is an ideal example of how to use showbiz dazzle right. Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson, the last two major classic-era artists still recording for Motown in the ’80s, turn in straightforward sets that nevertheless prove why they were still scoring hits two decades after their firsts.
The night, however, belongs to two men, neither of whom had recorded for Motown in years. The first, Marvin Gaye, had just mounted a comeback with “Sexual Healing” after spending years as a tax exile in Europe and battling drug addiction. Watching him onstage, mumbling through a speech on black music history while vamping at the piano, it’s clear he hasn’t overcome the worst of his troubles. Yet when he stands up and sings “What’s Going On,” he funnels his pain into a performance that breaks through the special’s chummy positivity and wrenches the heart.
The other star of Motown 25 is Michael Jackson, riding the waves of a #1 album (Thriller) and a #1 single (“Billie Jean”), and on the verge of becoming the biggest singer in the world. He lip-syncs his performance, but his personal electricity and amazingly fluid dance moves stick out, even on a special devoted to charismatic stars. In fact, Motown 25 is best remembered in the public imagination as the debut of the Moonwalk. The DVD’s press materials call it “six seconds that changed the world,” but it’s actually more like two or three total, scattered across a pair of quick bursts. Still, it’s enough to earn Jackson the biggest crowd reaction of the night and to guarantee his superstardom.
Watching Motown 25 over 30 years after it first aired is to witness time refracted: a tribute to the past that has since taken on its own nostalgic sheen. There’s Marvin Gaye in his second-to-last TV performance before his death the following year, and Michael Jackson before his personal problems overwhelmed his musical talent. The Four Tops, Mary Wells, and Junior Walker were also all still living. Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder performed not just as pop music legends, but active hitmakers still ruling radio. (Less missed: the plethora of Jheri curls and boxy gowns.)
But perhaps the most nostalgic thing about Motown 25 is its very existence. A two-hour tribute to a record company airing on primetime network television would be unheard of in today’s entertainment landscape. Yet Motown 25 was one of NBC’s most successful specials to date, and it reignited enough interest in the record company’s back catalog to cover its staggering expense. The credit, of course, goes to the power of Motown itself, and its ability to bridge genres and races to create some of the most indelible music of the past 55 years.