Sources: Detroit Free Press – By Brian McCollum | All Things Michael
It was the show that sent Michael Jackson into the stratosphere, burnished Diana Ross’ diva reputation and gave Marvin Gaye a final high-profile stage.
But it took 31 years for “Motown 25” to make it onto DVD, which will happen Tuesday when the historic broadcast is issued by TimeLife in both a three-disc set and six-disc deluxe version, with digitally restored video and a 5.1 surround mix.
“Motown 25,” celebrating the Detroit-born label’s quarter-century anniversary, was taped at L.A.’s Pasadena Civic Auditorium in March 1983 and aired two months later for an NBC audience of 47 million.
The two-hour program hit a cultural sweet spot, luring young viewers for Jackson and drawing Baby Boomers whose ’60s nostalgia was kicking into high gear. Both audiences got what they wanted: Jackson, whose “Thriller” was taking over the world that spring, served up his now-iconic moonwalk, and a host of his former Motown colleagues performed vintage stuff: Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops.
Today the notion of a “Motown family” is a staple of the Hitsville story. “Motown 25” helped cement that concept, says producer Suzanne de Passe.
“I don’t think until ‘Motown 25′ the rest of the world really got to understand that — that regardless of anything else, the coming back together was … the bigger feeling of love and appreciation for what they had experienced together,” says de Passe, then head of Berry Gordy Jr.’s Motown Productions.
“It was like we all came back together for Thanksgiving dinner,” says the Tops’ Duke Fakir.
The DVD set’s bonus footage has its own charms, including little-seen rehearsals by Wonder and Gaye, who gamely endures a clunky stage lift before practicing his eloquent monologue and piano journey through black music history. Also included are taped roundtables with de Passe, director Don Mischer and artists, along with historical Motown featurettes.
A DVD release was held up for years because of song and image license clearances, says de Passe, with TimeLife’s muscle ultimately breaking the logjam. Also demanding input was Jackson’s estate, because “they have a number of their own projects going and just didn’t want to, I suspect, flood the marketplace,” she says.
With appearances by the likes of Adam Ant, DeBarge and host Richard Pryor, the show is as much a snapshot of 1983 as a celebration of Motown history. It’s also a glimpse of an era when mass, shared cultural moments could still happen on a random Monday night.
Today, “where the competition for eyeballs and interest and pocketbooks is so unbelievably competitive and there are so many choices, it seems as though that unless it’s a specific sporting event or some monumental programming, then it’s very hard to have that water cooler moment,” says de Passe.
“Motown 25” certainly delivered its share of memorable touchstones: the musical battle between the Tempts and the Tops, Gaye’s powerful speech, Lionel Richie’s call for sickle-cell research, Gordy’s triumphant curtain call. But none loomed larger than Jackson’s performance of “Billie Jean,” which introduced his moonwalk and immortalized his sequined, white-gloved image.
It almost didn’t happen: Jackson and his brothers had split Motown for Epic Records seven years earlier, and only a personal entreaty from Gordy coaxed him aboard for the night, de Passe recounts. The star’s attorneys demanded that the performance not be taped for TV, but when de Passe assured Jackson he had an editing-room veto, he was won over.
“If you see him in the finale, he’s as happy as he can be,” says de Passe.
“Motown 25” produced another enduring talking point, one long shrouded in mystery: the Supremes’ closing reunion performance of “Someday We’ll Be Together,” with Gordy called down to take his moment onstage. You’ll get a different reading of events depending whose fans you talk to. Diana Ross supporters will tell you Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong set out to sabotage the lead singer by singing over her and mimicking her moves; Wilson fans say that Ross literally muscled her way into the spotlight.
For three decades, rumors have swirled about what really went down live at the auditorium, unaired on TV, the worst of them claiming that Ross shoved Wilson to the stage floor. The taped footage, goes the scuttlebutt, was destroyed.
Wrong, and wrong, according to de Passe. No such footage was burned, because it never existed, the producer says: Wilson, caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment, had simply jumped the gun on calling Gordy to the stage, and Ross pushed her microphone down, trying to stick with the sequence scripted by producers.
“People just seemed to blow it out of proportion,” says de Passe. “I don’t even know where it really started.”
The cameras, at that point aimed on Gordy, didn’t capture the onstage mishap, de Passe contends.
“(No footage) burned, nothing averted, no,” she says. “I think in 31 years or whatever it’s been, if we had it, we’d have used it to actually dispel the perception that there was some terrible altercation.”
“Motown 25” created lingering effects for many participants: Jackson’s fame soared even higher. The Temptations and Four Tops got a middle-age career boost, and hit the road together. That night’s version of the Supremes never again reunited. Gaye set the stage for his summer concert tour — the last before his death the next spring. De Passe won an Emmy and was propelled to a TV career that would include the 1989 miniseries “Lonesome Dove.”
And Gordy, whose new Broadway musical portrays “Motown 25” as a redemptive moment amid a career slump, enjoyed “a validation and a celebration of the joint accomplishments,” as de Passe puts it.
“Until the whole thing was put together,” she says, “I don’t think any of us really understood what we had all accomplished.”
Contact Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or email@example.com.
‘Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever’
DVD release: three-disc set ($39.98) and six-disc deluxe set ($79.95)
In stores Tuesday
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