"Marvin Gaye: What's Going On"
At the recent Nashville Film Festival, I had the pleasure of meeting and spending time with songwriter and producer Dennis Lambert. Lambert was in town for the screening of "Of All the Things," a documentary directed by his son Jody, about Dennis's unlikely 2007 tour of the Philippines. Among his many contributions to popular music, Lambert co-wrote with the Commodores' Clyde Orange the band's 1984 hit "Nightshift."
During an intimate showcase at the Bluebird after the screening, Lambert played "Nightshift" and briefly told the audience that the entire song started with Orange telling him that Marvin "was a friend of mine." That was all Lambert needed. The opening line of that song is etched in your brain the moment you hear it. I've always loved the lines that follow it, "And he could sing a song/his heart in every line." That, apparently, was Marvin: an open book. A very complex, confident, passionate, perplexing, amazing, over analyzed open book. Oh, and a musical genius.
For the uninitiated, American Masters' new presentation "Marvin Gaye: What's Going On" tries its best to pack everything into an hour. It's no easy task. Cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson sets the stage early. "If you are a person who's outraged by war, Marvin's music is for you," he says. "If you want to make love, Marvin's music is for you. If you want to talk about the conditions of spirituality when it's infused in the secular world, Marvin's music is for you."
How do you explore the depth of what that means in an hour? Significant attention is paid, rightfully so, to Marvin's arrival at Motown and his rise through the ranks. It's fun. It's groovy. But it happens so quickly. Before you know it, Gaye goes from a stubborn and extremely confident musician at the label to a bona fide star with his first hit "Stubborn Kind Of Fellow." It's hard not to smile watching him perform the song with what certainly looks a validating smirk on his face. He's doing it his way and we love it. We soon learn that he couldn't dance, and we laugh. But here's one of the greatest artists of the 20th Century, and little attention is paid to him as a songwriter. I'm left wanting to know a little bit more about his process and his creative role at Motown, especially with the other artists. Here's the guy that co-wrote "Dancing in the Streets." We get plenty of highlights, like a focus on the "What's Going On" album, placed perfectly into the context of the civil rights movement and war in Vietnam, and a fascinating look at the circumstances surrounding the spectacularly confounding "Here, My Dear," which singer Bobby Taylor says "sold about six."
But to spend that much time on "Here, My Dear" and its existence as a reaction to Gaye's divorce from his wife Anna (Motown head Berry Gordy's sister) and not explain where all that anger came from is a disservice. As in "What's Going On," I need context. And what effect did the dissolution of his marriage have on his relationship with Gordy and Motown?
The film has wonderful interviews with Smokey Robinson, Mary Wilson, David Ritz and more, and thrilling archival performance clips (although footage from Gaye's last concerts in California approach heartbreaking), but like I mentioned earlier, how do you get everything that is Marvin Gaye into an hour? You can focus on the artist, the writer and the groundbreaking auteur in the studio. You can focus on Gaye's complex and ultimately fatal relationship with his father and the internal spiritual struggle he lived his whole life with as a result. You can look at the husband and father. Either approach could have filled an hour, and writer, producer and director Sam Pollard -- because he knows you can't understand Gaye without understanding all of this -- tries his best to cram it all in. The film isn't meant to be definitive, of course, but still feels only like a glance. I only wish, like the perfect American Masters' look at Pete Seeger, that it was a half hour longer.