Directed by British brothers Gabe and Benjamin Turner, “Hitsville” traces the history of Motown Records from its founding in 1958 in Detroit up to its relocation to Los Angeles during the early 1970s. Told through rare behind-the-scenes footage, performances, and exclusive new interviews with Motown founder Berry Gordy, the film offers an intimate look into the ascent of Motown to one of the most successful record labels of all time. “Hitsville” also dives into the massive cultural impact of Motown as it blossomed alongside the flaring racial tensions that characterized the civil rights era.
During the premiere, the Los Angeles Sentinel spoke to several Motown artists and creative figures, as well as the film’s directors.
The Turner brothers told the Sentinel how honored they felt to have been entrusted with the task of telling Motown’s story, and they hope it will bring about a positive and lasting message.
“We feel really privileged to be here tonight, to have made the film, to have been people that have put this story together,” Gabe Turner said. “Hopefully, this film will travel generations and people will watch it in years to come.”
Although it has been over 60 years since Motown’s founding, Benjamin Turner believes its story is deeply relevant for modern audiences.
“I think more than anything, this is a story that needs to be told right now,” he said. “Across the world, there is division and it feels like a difficult time. Motown is a story of hope and unity and beauty, and they did something absolutely amazing against all the odds. And they did something for everybody.”
The Sentinel was able to catch a moment on the red carpet with the film’s most prominent figures, Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson. The two recalled their first meeting, when Gordy was already a professional songwriter and Robinson was just a young man with a few songs written down.
“He was doing great,” Robinson said of Gordy. “And I was just a little dude who had some songs, and most of them didn’t make sense, and he pointed that out to me. He actually mentored me in writing songs.”
Robinson said he felt forever in debt to Gordy for taking the time cultivate him as a songwriter. Gordy likewise showed an equal if not greater admiration for Robinson.
“He’s the only person in the world that I know every time he was criticized, he got more excited,” Gordy said. “That’s what excited me.”
Then he added: “What didn’t excite me was, after a few months, he became better than me.”
Gordy said that when he realized Robinson had surpassed him in songwriting, their relationship became somewhat competitive.
“One day, he came to me with a song called ‘I’ll Try Something New,’” Gordy recalled. “It was just so brilliant. And then I went back to my drawing board and I tried to write better. Then I wrote a few hits, and then he came back and outdid me again.”
It only took a little teaching, Gordy said, for Robinson to come into himself as an artist, upon which he began producing “the stuff that we all know about, that became historical tunes.”
However competitive they may have been, Gordy and Robinson have clearly remained the best of friends over the decades.
“This bond is everlasting,” Robinson said. “I love this man with all of me. And he has earned that from me. He’s earned my respect, my trust, my love, from the day I met him.”
At the end of the interview, Robinson talked about how the music of Motown influenced and was influenced by the civil rights movement. He recalled that several Motown acts would frequently participate in sit-ins, marches and other demonstrations as they travelled across the country.
“We could not ignore it,” he said. “If you were Black in America at that time, it was impossible for you to ignore that. And so, everybody was involved in the civil rights movement, and we were very heavily involved in it. In fact, Dr. Martin Luther King made a couple albums at Motown. But we did it – we broke down barriers with music.”
Many of Motown’s earliest artists say they are amazed at how deeply the legacy of Motown is seared into the American memory, even in the present day. It could even be said that today’s tumultuous political landscape has brought a new relevance to these old tracks.
“To be part of it is mind-boggling for me,” Mary Wilson told the Sentinel. “I don’t know about the others here, but to know some fifty-some years later, we are still being listened to, people like yourself still want to interview us, and I’m still thinking like, ‘Wow, this is really fantastic.’ I always said it’s like a dream come true.”
Go to lasentinel.net/videos to watch Los Angeles Sentinel Managing Editor Brandon I. Brooks interview Motown legends on the red carpet.
“Hitsville: The Making of Motown” will air on Showtime for the first time on Saturday, August 24 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.