Any fan of not just old school R&B, but of music in general, has to acknowledge the immense influence that Motown Records had on pop music history. Without Motown, it's hard to imagine every type of band and music that changed the world, from The Beatles, all the way to Beyonce. In 1983, the legendary Motown label reached its 25th anniversary, and a two-hour televised show was put together in order to celebrate this milestone while also giving a portion of the proceeds to charity.
Impeccably hosted by the god of comedy Richard Pryor (Any objections to that?), the show contained who's who of great Motown musicians; Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Supremes, Four Tops, etc, performing at the height of their talent. The performances were intercut with brief informational segments about the history of the label. I admire how these segments didn't shy away from showcasing the racism of the time, bringing up the fact that many white musicians made a lot of money off the backs of black musicians by "covering" ("Making much lamer" should be the correct term) the songs they worked so hard on, taking advantage of the fact that white listeners refused to buy "black music" at the time.
I was only four years old when the special was broadcast. But I remember catching up to it during my early teen years, a time when I was pretty much obsessed with old R&B, so you can guess how thrilling the experience was for me. Here were all of my favorite artists in one place, singing and performing their hearts out. Watching Motown 25 in 2016, I have to admit that some of it is dated in that charming 80s way. The cheesy opening dance number looks like a crayon factory blew up in Bob Fosse's studio. Speaking of Fosse, pretty much every home video release of Motown 25 markets the show as the first time Michael Jackson did the moonwalk. I thought the premiere of the moonwalk was in 1974, when Fosse did it in The Little Prince. Sorry, I couldn't help myself.
But when the music begins, it's as timeless as ever (Well, short of some crappy 80s stuff like DeBarge). The music is vibrant and infectious, and the performances have enough variety to keep the show from going stale. My favorite performance is a loose medley by the Motown songwriters, sang while they're playing poker and chatting about the past. They're aware of the cameras, for sure, but we also get the feeling that what they're doing is as natural to them as breathing.
One might ask why this important show isn't available on Blu-ray, and that's mainly because there isn't an HD source to begin with. The show was shot on SD video, and with the 1983 standards, you can understandably expect a lot of video noise inherent to the technology. Yes, if it's inherent to the technology, it's not technically noise, but when modern audiences see the obvious issues like chroma noise, aliasing, color bleeding, comet trails, etc, they might be disengaged. So I'm here to let you know that Motown 25 is recreated as faithfully as possible.
Here's where a Blu-ray release might have helped. A DTS-HD 5.1 release would have been dynamite when paired with this show. However, the lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 options are more than welcome, vibrant and full-of-life additions. The 5.1 track will make you feel as if you're part of the audience, since it has a healthy amount of surround presence.
Where do we even begin? First of all, when the feature is only 1/6th of the DVD package's runtime, is it fair to call the rest "extras"? The glossy package comes with what looks like a loose recreation of the program booklet, another booklet with tons of essays, and a whopping 6 DVDs.
Roundtable: A delightful 25-minute conversation with some of the artists, recorded in 1983.
The Making of Motown 25: A 30-minute featurette where the show's crew discusses how the whole thing came together.
Marvin Gaye Rehearsal: This is a godsend for hardcore R&B fans. We watch uncut footage of Gaye rehearsing before the show. As usual, the man reminds everyone why he was the captivating presence that he was.
What's Going On?: A 30-minute featurette about Marvin Gaye. If you need a crash course on this legend, this is the right place.
Interviews: An hour of interviews with producers Suzanne De Passe and Don Mischer that go into great detail about their experiences working for Motown.
Roundtables: Two featurettes, running a total of 90 minutes. First one follows the producers of the show as they walk through the original stage and talk about their memories. The second one recreates the 1983 musician roundtable where the same musicians talk about the show in what looks like the late 90s or early 00s.
Reach Out I'll Be There: A 12-minute featurette where the musicians and producers talk affectionately about The Temptations' and Four Tops' performance together.
Come and Get These Memories: A 15-minute featurette where singers and workers at Motown discuss the beginnings of Motown.
Interviews: In-depth interviews with Duke Fakir, Otis Williams, Claudette Robinson, and Martha Reeves, that clock in at about 70 minutes.
Believe it or not, this is where we get to the "official" bonus features.
Songwriters' Roundtable: This is another essential feature, a one-hour 1983 roundtable with the Motown songwriters. Since these people are not stars, their loose and friendly approach to their memories working for the label are infectiously warm.
Dancin' In The Streets: This is an 18-minute featurette where contemporary musicians gush over their love of Motown tunes.
Interviews: Yikes! About 2 hours of interviews with many songwriters and producers. This is where we get to material for the extra hardcore fans.
Stevie Wonder Rehearsal: As a huge fan of Stevie, it was great to see this uncut rehearsal footage, even though it was only 9 minutes long.
You've Really Got a Hold On Me: A 15-minute featurette on The Miracles.
My Guy: A 13-minute featurette about Smokey Robinson.
I Heard It Through The Grapevine: A 10-minute featurette about the unique Motown sound.
Motown 25 Reboot: A 5-minute featurette about how the new 5.1 track was put together.
Interviews: Over an hour of interviews with Smokey Robinson, Adam Ant, and a couple of Motown executives.
Interviews: You knew it was coming to this. This disc contains over 3 hours of interviews with writers, producers, and executives from the label. This stuff if for the extra, extra hardcore fan.
Along with the captivating original show, this massive collection of Motown material is highly recommended to everyone who's a fan of the label's outstanding output.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com