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Music DVD Review: Motown – The DVD

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Fifty-one years ago, Berry Gordy founded Motown, and music has never quite been the same – in an excellent kind of way, of course. From Marvin Gaye to Stevie Wonder and The Jackson Five, to Smokey Robinson and The Temptations, Motown has brought us some memorable artists.

And with the magic of television, Motown was also able to bring America some memorable moments as well. Of course, in wake of the still-recent passing of Michael Jackson last summer, one can’t help but remember his moonwalk on the Motown 25th Anniversary special. But Motown moments are so much more than that. For those who lived through those times, there are probably many more moments that immediately come to mind. And for those of us that didn’t, there is Motown: The DVD.

I might come about as being uncharacteristically nostalgic for someone my age, but television isn’t quite the same thing as when I was a child. Thankfully, the decreasing quality of today’s television shows (you know you’re in trouble when there are over 300 channels, and yet only a handful of quality viewing moments) is countered by the increased availability of old school movies and television shows. Never mind you that it’s probably the newest goldmine for big corporations – this is one worth investing in.

Reflecting the times its clips were filmed in, Motown: The DVD comes with very simple packaging. I already knew most of the songs on the DVD, but I had never watched any of the performances – and so, despite the simple packaging, I felt quite the thrill when I popped the case open. Or perhaps I felt that thrill because the packaging was simple; since 1959 was, compared to 2010, relatively simple, it felt like the DVD was, for now, remaining true to its origins rather than remade for today.

I decided to start with one of the bonus features to put myself in the mood. "1959 – The Year in Review", a twenty-five minute review of said year, starts with a typical theatre introduction section from the 1950s (which made me grin), and took the form of the newsreel that typically preceded movies in theatres. It provided a great overview of what happened in 1959 in: politics (including a speech in English by Fidel Castro and JFK’s decision to run for president), consumption (maple flavoured breakfast oatmeal and Cheer fabric cleaner), movies (trailers for Brigitte Bardot’s A Woman like Satan and Marlon Brandon’s The Fugitive Kind) and sports. The Miss Universe contestants are delightfully curvaceous, children are amazingly polite and cigarettes were still glamorous (it was a weird seeing a Marlboro commercial glorifying cigarettes).

This feature was a great touch that will be greatly appreciated by nerds, history buffs, and music aficionados. For, as one knows, one can’t separate the individual from its social environment, thus one’s art cannot be fully segregated by the reality of the time and place it was produced in.

You can play the songs on the DVD in two typical fashions: one by one, as per your preference, or all together as part of an hour long feature. For your first viewing experience, I recommend you watch the entire set as it comes with a lovely introduction and are interspaced with clips from interviews with Berry Gordy and The Temptations amongst others.

Some of the songs are the clips (Martha & The Vandellas’ "Nowhere to Run", for example), some are live presentations (Four Tops’ "I can’t help myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" which happens to be another one of my favourites, as well as "My Girl" by The Temptations, which was one of my favourites before I heard it on the movie of the same name. Seriously, who could resist that song? And speaking of which, The Temptations put most (if not all) current boy bands to great, great shame).

In contrast to the sometimes overwhelming concerts of today, most of which is about dazzling and entertaining than performing and singing, it was interesting and rather refreshing to see simple clips and presentations and listen to simple melodies that include fifty levels of extra electronic sounds.

And if you really want to plunge even further into the 1950s and the 1960s, the DVD comes with the option to listen to all the clips with the original recordings that were done. Of course, listening to them remastered provides for a much better quality (and a lesser headache, to be honest), but it’s quite a lovely touch, to be able to listen to the actual recordings.

Another interesting tidbit I noticed is that many of the singers bowed to the audience after their performance, including – get this – Marvin Gaye! I don’t know if it has to do with the fact that racism and segregation were still rampant institutionally at the time (they are, quite unfortunately, still rampant today, but not institutionally at least), but it did make me think of the shift in the position of artists in the last 50 years. Before, they were entertainers, admired for their talent but that’s it. Today, they are glorified and deified, and droves of fans adopt their sayings and doings as guidelines to lead their own lives. Before, they bowed; today, they raise their hand in the air as the crowds cheer madly for them. Which makes me wonder: what if we went back to the days when entertainers were at the same level as any other hardworking person?

Gladys Knight’s stage presence was dazzling, Stevie Wonder singing "Uptight (Everything’s Alright)" at the age of 15 was inspiring and joyful, the Four Tops’ ability to get the crowd going added to a song I already love, watching Jimmy Ruffin singing "What becomes of the brokenhearted" made it even more poignant; in short, for someone like me, who has never seen these performances but who has heard the songs over and over again, it brought a breath of life into them and cemented them as definitive moments in music.

Over an hour of music and interviews coupled with a feature reflecting the mood of 1959 and the full Berry Gordy interview on Teen Town make this DVD a great addition to the library of any music aficionado.

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