Supremes caught ruling
26 September, 2019 — By Dan Carrier
The Supremes feature in Hitsville, the story of Motown and Berry Gordy, the record label’s founder
HITSVILLE: THE MAKING OF MOTOWN
Directed by Ben and Gabe Turner
CLOSE your eyes and think of the opening moments of The Supremes’ You Can’t Hurry Love.
Those magical four bars with the bassline and percussion are, according to Motown record label founder Berry Gordy, what you absolutely must get right: grab your listener in those 16 seconds and you’ll have a hit.
He should know. Gordy created the Detroit firm that gave America a soundtrack in the late 1950s and 60s, produced some of the best-known songs ever released, and made a stable of recording artists household names.
His story – and that of the label – has been a labour of love for Camden Town-based brothers Ben and Gabe Turner. The pair, who set up film firm Fulwell 73, have had a string of hits (Fulwell gave us the award-winning Bros documentary last year) and they have a Midas-like ability to take a topic and create fascinating cinema from it.
Hitsville starts by taking us back to the 1950s, and showing us how Gordy set the label up, giving the lowdown on his background – before cutting tunes, he worked on the Ford car firm’s processing line.
Gordy came from a family of entrepreneurs who ran a grocery store named after Booker T Washington, and based their values on self-sufficiency and hard work, not waiting for the government to help black communities, but following Washington’s philosophy of getting things done themselves. This formed a backbone for the Motown company.
A songwriter, he recognised talent around him: Detroit had a quartet on every corner and Gordy wanted to cut their records. He established a studio that became a home for the likes of Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.
The label also played a role in the civil rights movement. Gordy said his music shouldn’t be pigeonholed as black music, it was music for everyone. Landmarks such as The Supremes appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show were, at the time, an important step.
Yet we also learn that when Motown artists went on tour, they were forced to suffer the Jim Crow segregation treatment.
The Turners have earned exclusive access to Gordy, and they this colossus of modern music tells his story –backed by his mate Smokey Robinson. The pair make for fascinating screen time as they look back at the magic ingredients.
Watching them argue – and then bet $100 – over which artist first recorded I Heard It Through The Grapevine, is so warm-hearted, you can begin to understand what they had.
One yarn emerges of singer Martha Reeves. She had come in the hope of winning some studio time but was given the brush-off. Instead, she got a role as a secretary.
At the time, the Musicians’ Union insisted a singer was present during recording – and as Gordy was putting together an in-house session band, they got a tip-off a union official was on his way.
Martha stuck her hand up and said she’d stand by the microphone so it looked like they were obeying rules – and then blew everyone away with her voice.
Hitsville is helped by archive footage – Gordy recorded everything – and by a platter of superb talking heads, including Dr Dre explaining how he based his own label, Death Row, on what Gordy had achieved.
This is a toe-tapping, insightful movie that will remind you of the sheer excellence of the genre, and its place during a vital period of American history.