DVD Review: Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever - Three-Disc Edition

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For anyone with even the slightest interest in the monumental achievements of Berry Gordy and the various artists from Motown’s classic era, StarVista/Time Life’s Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever DVD release can’t be ignored. The two-hour special originally aired on May 16, 1983 and, despite a prevailing air of showbiz gloss, contains numerous time capsule performances. Though it’s best remembered now for Michael Jackson’s electrifying dancing during a lip-synced “Billie Jean” (which introduced the world to the moonwalk), if you’ve not seen the complete special you’re missing tons of indelible moments.

Richard Pryor hosts the program, seemingly well aware of (and bemused by) the sometimes corny spectacle of the presentation. He remains on his best behavior throughout, however, respectful of the artists he’s helping honor. After a particularly goofy “What is the Motown Sound?” segment, during which a multitude of participants offer rather superficial soundbites explaining the magic behind the music, Pryor wryly states, “Well, now that we all understand.” Lame sketches aside though, the music is often stirring. The house band manages to squash a lot of the Motown magic right out of the songs, but between Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, a reunited Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson, and Diana Ross there are plenty of great moments to bask in.

There are also some highly dated early-‘80s throwbacks that are likely to provoke a smile or two. Much of the audience at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium reacts with polite indifference to Adam Ant’s supremely over the top rendition of “Where Did Our Love Go.” Howard Hesseman and Tim Reid offer a easy nostalgia with a WKRP mini-reunion, introducing too-brief performance by the likes of Martha Reeves, Mary Wells, and Jr. Walker. Mile-a-minute speed-talker John Moschitta is probably the biggest ‘80s pop culture relic, though his monologue is one of the funnier bits. The Lester Wilson Dancers deliver open the show on a shaky note with tacky, Broadway-style garishness to the strains of “Dancing in the Street.”

The three-disc configuration packs in a generous amount of supplements. Disc one, in addition to the special itself, includes the “Motown 25 Performers Roundtable,” which features Smokey Robinson, Duke Fakir (Four Tops), Otis Williams (founding member of The Temptations), and the special’s executive producer Suzanne de Passe. “Signed, Sealed & Delivered” is a featurette focused on the making of Motown 25. Over on disc two we get some priceless, unedited rehearsal footage of Marvin Gaye, along with a featurette about the late legend, “What’s Going On: Marvin Gaye.” There are also more interviews with de Passe as well as the special’s director, Don Mischer. Disc three kicks off with “Motown 25 Production Roundtable” and also “Performers Roundtable Part 2.” Excellent featurettes take a look at the Four Tops and Temptations and “Come and Get These Memories” takes us inside Hitsville. Duke Fakir, Otis Williams, Martha Reeves, and Claudette Robinson (The Miracles) are spotlighted in additional interview segments.

For the extra-devoted Motown fans out there, keep in mind there’s also a six-disc collector’s edition available exclusively on the Time Life website. This edition takes viewers deeper into the history of Motown and offers an even closer look at Motown 25 (including Stevie Wonder rehearsal footage). For the budget-conscious, the Motown 25 special can be purchased as a single, standalone DVD.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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