Over thirty years after it originally aired on network television, and over twenty years since it saw an official VHS release, Time-Life/StarVista is finally releasing the classic TV special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever on DVD. They are offering the release in a simple 1-DVD edition, a special 3-DVD edition, a deluxe 6-DVD edition, and a deluxe-deluxe 6-DVD/8-CD edition. (Time-Life provided DVD Talk with the 3-DVD edition to review.)
My earliest memory of Motown 25, which aired in May 1983, is of a taped-from-TV VHS of the show that was played for me by a babysitter (I'm guessing this was a year or more after the original airing). I was three or four years old, so she didn't play me the whole show, of course. She fast-forwarded straight to the section where the reunited Jackson 5 (plus Randy) performed, which led into Michael Jackson's indelible, Emmy-nominated performance of "Billie Jean." For many people, Motown 25 is synonymous with "Billie Jean," because this performance is where Michael debuted the Moonwalk.
Viewed now, The Jacksons section is a clear highlight of Motown 25, but it is also a relatively small portion of the entire program. While the producers made some concessions to younger audiences with the inclusion of Michael Jackson and newer acts like DeBarge, High Inergy, and Adam Ant, the show is clearly meant to be a nostalgia trip for Baby Boomers (a few short months before the Big Chill soundtrack scratched the exact same cultural itch).
Unfortunately, since nostalgia is the main order of business, Motown 25 is riddled with medleys. After all, if you were seeing Diana Ross and the Supremes or The Jackson 5 reunite for the first time in years, would you want to hear them perform just one of their classic songs or would you prefer to hear them clumsily jam as many hits into three minutes as possible? Some poor artists -- like Mary Wells, Junior Walker, Martha Reeves, and even The Commodores -- are stuck doing thirty-second renditions of one song each.
Despite this tendency toward abridgment (although, adding insult to injury, the awards show-type dance numbers from the Lester Wilson Dancers go on far too long), Motown 25 is actually still quite a bit of fun. The family-reunion aspect of the show, coupled with the undeniable talent of most of the acts, maintains a high level of audience goodwill, even through the technically or conceptually bumpy sections of the show.
The bumpiest aspect of the show might be its fumbly host, Richard Pryor, who is clearly uncomfortable reading off of a teleprompter. At one point, Pryor is so nervous that he accidentally coins a new word, "pruberty." When he is asked to recite a "Motown Fairy Tale" late in the show, recounting the label's history in cutesy storybook terms, he frequently blows his lines but manages to get laughs by babbling gibberish instead.
Fortunately for Pryor, he is not the only one who has long monologues to spout. Dick Clark, Billy Dee Williams, Motormouth John Moschitta (you know, the Micro Machines guy), Howard Hesseman, and Tim Reid (the last two doing half-hearted takes on their WKRP characters) all take turns telling portions of the Motown story throughout the show. These little bits of history are welcome, but they are fairly shallow by necessity, considering the brisk pace of the show.
The most interesting bit of history comes during a pre-taped and edited songwriters' roundtable where Holland-Dozier-Holland, Norman Whitfield, Mickey Stevenson, Harvey Fuqua, and Ron Miller sit around talking about the competitive nature of working at Motown and the overall atmosphere at the label. They reminisce about Motown recordings they admire and end up singing a verse of the Barrett Strong hit "Money (That's What I Want)," which happens to have been written by Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr.
Smokey Robinson almost feels like Motown 25's unofficial second host, popping up to introduce a few acts, on top of appearing in three different medleys throughout the show. The first is with his original group, The Miracles, doing snippets from four of their hits, the second is a duet with Linda Ronstadt on "Ooh Baby Baby" and "Tracks of My Tears," and finally Smokey takes a solo spot where he performs excerpts from his then-recent hits "Being With You" and "Cruisin'."
While Smokey got to lay down a few new tunes, both Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye focus on older favorites. Stevie's big band set-up, complete with four back-up singers, sounds great on the excerpts from '70s-era tunes like "I Wish" and "Sir Duke," and the crowd gets on its feet for '60s classics like "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours." Marvin, who had left Motown for Columbia after some personal and professional upheavals, revisits his Motown pinnacle with a stirring rendition of "What's Going On."
Lionel Richie and Rick James were not present for the concert, although they are represented by pre-taped segments (James's clip is of the blink-and-you'll-miss-it variety).
Two of Motown's incredibly successful vocal groups, The Temptations and The Four Tops, are pitted in a kind of battle of the bands, helping to illustrate the old Motown ethos of "competition breeds champions." The Tempts and Tops are excellent at being playfully combative, with Dennis Edwards of the former group and Levi Stubbs of the latter both being particularly showboat-y in an amusing way. In fact, this segment might be the most organic use of the song medley form, with each group trying to top each other with the next hit. The moment of truth comes with the Temptations kick into "My Girl" -- possibly the Motown-iest song that ever was -- but Stubbs refuses to give in and just starts singing lead on the other group's song.
At some point, some executive must have said, "Motown, soul music, great, whatever... but can you get any white people in there too?" That can be the only explanation for the momentum-killing back-to-back appearances of Josť Feliciano and Adam Ant. Feliciano had at least been recently signed to Motown, but Adam Ant is completely out of place. His flop-sweat-drenched version of The Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go?" is nonetheless essential not just for how cringe-worthy it is (and I like Adam Ant's music), but for the incredible unplanned moment that occurs halfway into the song. Diana Ross is inspired to wander onstage and flirtatiously wiggle while Adam improvises a dance around her. In one fell swoop, she rescued the number from the dustbin. (If what I've read is correct, Feliciano was cut from the final broadcast. Country singer T.G. Sheppard, whose performance of "Devil in the Bottle" originally occurred during this section of the show, might have also gotten cut from television, but he reportedly made it to the VHS release. However, Sheppard's appearance has not made the transition to digital media. If it was as out-of-place as the other two "white people" numbers presented here, I don't know that it is such a huge loss.)
The big selling points of Motown 25 at the time were two reunions. The one that has joined the realm of urban legend is the re-teaming of Diana Ross with the Supremes. Reportedly, what should have been a creative coup for the show's producers turned into an attempted coup of another sort when the Supremes tried to upstage Diana. As the story goes, Diana responded by shoving Mary Wilson. All that remains in the final show is a bit of stiff chumminess between the trio and Mary's obvious attempt to stand out by wearing a shimmering red dress, while the other two are dressed in black and white. (None of the DVD bonus features address this supposed scuffle.)
The second reunion was more of a technicality: it involved the return of Jermaine Jackson to the original Jackson 5 line-up. Considering how little Jermaine specifically gets to do during the group's performance, the importance of this "reunion" seems overblown. There is admittedly a nice moment during "I'll Be There" where Jermaine's microphone goes dead, and Michael immediately puts his mic in front of his brother's mouth and they hug.
...Which brings us back to Michael's performance of "Billie Jean." Watching "Billie Jean" now, there's a lot of surprising aspects to the performance. The most obvious of these surprises is that Michael is lip-synching. He was clearly singing live with his brothers just moments before, and the switch is a bit startling. Maybe Michael knew that his dance choreography was going to be most important -- or maybe he didn't trust the Motown house band to properly reproduce that Quincy Jones sound from the studio recording -- but it was clearly a considered choice. Even without live sound, Michael's physical performance is so exact that it remains astonishing. Most surprising is the fact that he only moonwalks twice during the song, for a probable total of ten seconds -- and yet, even now, it feels like a momentous event in the center of an entertaining but fairly conventional musical revue.
Motown 25 was a TV ratings smash and eventually an Emmy winner. It inspired follow-ups like Motown Returns to the Apollo (which is reportedly coming to DVD soon) and Motown 40. While its medley-reliant format is not ideal and a few (melanin-deficient) acts are outright stinkers, the overall program holds up surprisingly well.