Over thirty years after it originally aired on network television in May of 1983, Time-Life/StarVista is 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 us with the 3-DVD edition to review.)
I was fortunate enough to watch the original broadcast on May 16, 1983. At 10 years old, I was listening to Michael Jackson’s Thriller over and over again. When I heard that Michael Jackson was appearing on the show, I couldn’t wait to see him reunite with his brothers. At just 24 and not yet a superstar (but well on his way), he participated in an energetic medley of hits by The Jackson 5. Once his brothers left the stage, Michael stepped forward and whipped out a fedora as the unmistakable thump of “Billie Jean” filled the air. As an estimated 47 million viewers looked on, Jackson became a superstar in a matter of minutes; gliding across the stage as off he could defy gravity, he introduced the moonwalk, electrifying the world.
But while Michael Jackson is the clear highlight of the show, he was one of an amazing slate of talents. The great Richard Pryor served as host. While he’s clearly uncomfortable reading off the teleprompter, he admits to it; for me, any Richard Pryor is a good thing. Nobody spouted gibberish like him.
Motown clearly wanted to get as many of their recording artists on the show as possible, which unfortunately met that several legends were given short shrift. Mary Wells, Junior Walker, Martha Reeves and others are given thirty seconds each. Instead, apparently the producers wanted to appear hip and fresh by having the then hip Adam Ant (he was in the midst of his five minutes of superstardom), perform a largely forgettable version of The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go?” The saving grace comes about halfway through the song, when Diana Ross meandered onstage and got her flirt on, while Ant dances around her. While Adam Ant’s performance seems like it took away from stage time that could have been given to bonafide Motown legends, the dance numbers from the Lester Wilson Dancers are too long.
Quibbles aside, Motown 25 was and remains a lot of fun. Smokey Robinson (then Motown’s vice president), gets a lot of screen time appearing in three different medleys during the show, introducing a few other acts and performing some of his solo hits. First, he appears with his original group, The Miracles, performing a medley of four of their biggest hits. Next, he appears with Linda Ronstadt on and “Tracks of My Tears,” and finally Smokey takes the stage alone to sing his then recent solo hits, “Being With You” and “Cruisin’.”
Smokey wrote a lot of Motown’s hits, so it’s interesting to note that one of the best segments is a pre-taped songwriters’ roundtable where Holland-Dozier-Holland, Norman Whitfield, Mickey Stevenson, Harvey Fuqua, and Ron Miller discuss the rather competitive nature of pumping out hits at Motown. These are all talented people and it’s fascinating to hear them chat about how they approach their craft.
Other than Michael Jackson, my favorite performer of the evening was Stevie Wonder. Joined by a big band set-up, Stevie focuses on his ‘70s era heyday with excerpts from “I Wish” and “Sir Duke,” segueing into ‘60s classics “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours.” Great stuff. Motown 25 was such a big event, that even Marvin Gaye agreed to take the stage for a memorable version of “What’s Goin’ On,” despite having left the label in a less than congenial manner the year before. Sadly, this would be one of his final television appearances before his murder a year later
Two of Motown’s biggest vocal groups, The Temptations and Four Tops competed in a “Battle of the Bands” style event. More playful than competitive, the two groups performed excerpts from “Reach Out I’ll Be There”,”Baby I Need Your Loving”, “Get Ready”, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”, “My Girl” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and “I Can’t Get Next to You”, each trying to one up the other.
Advertised as one of the biggest events of the night, was the reunion of Diana Ross and the Supremes. What should have been a major get for producer Suzanne de Passe, but the whole thing turned out to be a bit of a disaster. Apparently, The Supremes weren’t happy with the exposure Diana Ross was getting and tried to upstage her. As the story goes, Diana responded by shoving Mary Wilson, So, while they were originally scheduled ro perform four of their greatest hits that night—including “Someday We’ll Be Together,” “Baby Love,” and “Stop! In the Name of Love”—all that remains is a short, awkward rendition of “Someday We’ll Be Together.” Clearly still smarting, Mary Wilson is wearing a shimming red dress, while Diana Ross and Cindy Birdsong are in similar black and white outfits. Whatever the case, I would have liked to see the reunion as planned.
A Full List of Performers:
Lionel Richie/ The Commodores
Michael Jackson / The Jackson 5
The Temptations / Four Tops
The following people appear in non-singing roles: Dick Clark, Howard Hesseman and Tim Reid (reprising their WKRP in Cincinnati roles as disc jockeys), fast-talker John Moschitta, Jr. and Billy Dee Williams. Additionally, a brief clip of Rick James and The Mary Jane Girls is shown.
The standard 1.33:1 image looks reasonable considering it’s more than thirty years old. Consistent throughout, there are no significant glitches to speak of. Don’t expect much in the way of fine detail, but the transfer manages to reproduce the overall look of the show pretty well.
Te audio is available via a Dolby 2.0 stereo mix and a newly fashioned Dolby 5.1 surround mix. Both are free of any defects and produce a surprising amount of clarity, Which ever track you choose, the experience will likely be a pleasing one.
The following extras are available:
- Performers Roundtable (18:57) Onstage at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, where the special took place, executive producer Suzanne de Passe asks Smokey Robinson, Otis Williams of the Temptations, and Duke Fakir of the Four Tops for anecdotes about the show. The trio remembers the recently deceased Maxine Powell, who was a finishing school instructor who styled the Motown stars, before going into a more general discussion covering history with the label and their continuing friendship.
- Signed, Sealed & Delivered: The Making of Motown 25 (30:02) – A well done piece about the production of the show, which unsurprisingly was beset with numerous logistical nightmares This featurette also includes some interesting snippets of rehearsal footage not included in other features in this 3-disc edition.
- Marvin Gaye Rehearsal Footage (23:36) The raw videotape of the late singer’s rehearsals for the show. It includes some technical hiccups, but of most interest though, is the inclusion of three run-throughs of Marvin’s introductory monologue at the piano, talking about the African-American experience and its influence on music, plus two performances of “What’s Going On.”
- What’s Going On: Marvin Gaye (20:32) Interviewees discuss the development of Marvin Gaye’s style, his history with the other members of the Motown label, and the less-than-pleasant circumstances surrounding his appearance on the Motown 25 special.
- Yesterday, Today, Forever: Motown 25 Production Roundtable (57:48) Producers Suzanne de Passe and Suzanne Coston, director Don Mischer, head writer Buz Kohan, and executive in charge of production David Goldberg share stories about getting the show on the air, and the extremely positive public reaction after the show aired.
- Performers Roundtable, Pt. 2 (29:48) – Smokey Robinson, Otis Williams of The Temptations, and Duke Fakir of the Four Tops offer further thoughts on their time at Motown (without Suzanne De Passe this time).
- Reach Out I’ll Be There: The Temptations and The Four Tops (11:59) An overview of the work The Temptations and Four Tops did at Motown.
- Come Get These Memories: Inside Hitsville (14:45) – This piece details the “competition breeds champions” nature of hit-making at Motown, with writers and producers like Norman Whitfield, Smokey Robinson, and Holland-Dozier-Holland discussing how songs would get made and picked for release—largely in archival interviews.
- Duke Fakir Interview (19:34) – Fakir discusses the formation of the Four Tops, his relationship with lead singer Levi Stubbs, as well as his relationship with other performers and producers at Motown.
- Otis Williams Interview (20:27) Williams talks a lot about the origins of The Temptations, how the group was named, how they became as famous for their dancing as their singing, there songs and more.
- Claudette Robinson Interview (12:18) A former member of The Miracles and Smokey Robinson’s ex-wife, Claudette discusses the family atmosphere of Motown.
- Martha Reeves Interview (16:17) Reeves also discusses the interactions of the different performers who worked at Motown.
- Suzanne De Passe Interview (38:09) – De Passe, credited with discovering the Jackson 5, eventually worked her way up president of Motown Productions (the label’s film and TV division). In this extended interview, which expands on De Passe’s anecdotes from the Signed, Sealed & Delivered featurette, she discusses her history with the company, her relationships with the artists, and the amount of work it took to get the star-studded show together.
- Don Mischer Interview (18:52) Another extension of material from Signed, Sealed & Delivered. Director Don Mischer, a live TV veteran, describes the work involved in executing this elaborate (and relatively low-budget) production.