One of the centres of music in the United States is Detroit, Michigan. First thing that comes to mind when you think of Detroit is probably the auto industry but during the 1960s the city became synonymous with Motown and its music. Using both music from that era and today, the documentary by directors Claus Bredenbrok and Pagonis Pagonakis (Memphis, Tennesee – The City That Changed the World) brings us through a modern history of the abundant rock, soul and pop music that has sprung out of Detroit.
Detroit is an industrial city with the biggest population in the state of Michigan. The largest of the border cities, it sits just on the other side of the Great Lakes from the Canadian city of Windsor. Founded in 1701 by a French captain it is now known as the motor city. In the early part of the 20th century it became the American capital of the car industry. With this industry doing well the population of the city was up to 1.8 million in the 1950s.
More recently the city has gone through some changes. As is typical of an area that undergoes a rapid rise it has been ensued by a profound fall. The population in 2010 had fallen to just over 700,000 and in July of 2013 the city had to declare bankruptcy. Despite going through these tough times the city retains one of the more vibrant music scenes in the United States.
In 1959 Berry Gordy Jr. founded Motown Records in Detroit. In the beginning the label was a small family business that was run out of a house. Gordy was an ambitious man who wanted to dominate the music scene and he did just that. It went on in the 1960s and 1970s to become one of the biggest music labels in the world. Some of the first artists signed to Motown were Diana Ross + the Supremes, The Four Tops and The Temptations. The label churned out Top 10 singles one after the other and as a result became known as Hitsville USA. Songs such as The Temptations’ “Get Ready”, The Marvelettes’ “Please, Mr. Postman”, The Miracles’ “Shop Around”, The Supremes’ “Stop in the Name of Love”, Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, Martha and the Vandella’s “Jimmy Mack”, Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight”, and The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” were all released on the Motown label.
Motown was so popular they made skin colour irrelevant. Despite the fact that Motown artists were black (it took Berry Gordy Jr. 9 years to sign a white group to his Motown label) white teenagers were buying the records. Motown Records was bringing people of all colours together.
The economic fortunes of Detroit are linked to the automobile industry. When the boom was happening just before World War II in the industry blacks from the South came to Detroit lured by the well paying jobs. Hence, there is a mixture of all kinds of people in the city. Still segregation of a different kind to what happened in the South happened in Detroit. In June of 1963 Martin Luther King and members of the black community marched through the city. The “I have a dream” speech was first done in Detroit. Things escalated until July of 1967 when social conflicts erupted into violence. Race riots began. Music coming out of Detroit becomes politically charged despite Berry Gordy Jr.’s and Motown’s efforts to keep it simply commercial. In 1972 Gordy sells the studio space and moves Motown to Los Angeles.
Besides the pop and soul of Motown another kind of music was coming from Detroit. Rock ‘n roll became a way that young males would escape from the drudgery of factory life. Artists like Mitch Ryder + the Detroit Wheels, Grand Funk Railroad, Ted Nugent, Iggy Pop, and Bob Seger all came out of Detroit. In the 1970s white rock ‘n roll bands rose to fame.
During the early 1980s in a climate of high crime and unemployment a new music scene in Detroit emerges. Detroit techno becomes world renowned. Even later hip hop artists like Eminem come out of the city. The future of the city becomes more and more uncertain and yet musicians continue to surface.
The film really shows the contrasts within the city of Detroit. On one hand there is poverty and on the other creativity and a valuing of music still exists. Recording studios and live music venues still manage to thrive somehow despite the poverty. Music is valued and an integral part of the city’s psyche. Rare insight into the underbelly of the decaying of the city due to the collapse of the automotive industry there and how it affected everything from race relations to topics sung about in songs.