American Masters: What’s Going On – The Life of Marvin Gaye
by Elaine Hegwood Bowen
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In a documentary that shows the many facets of the veritable soul singer of all time, Marvin Gaye, American Masters shows the troubled singer in many areas of public life: playing basketball, training for the Detroit Lions, as well as a soul-searching sojourn to Belgium toward the end of his life.
What plays out for viewers is a glimpse of a man who seemed as troubled as he was creative. As the documentary What’s Going On unfolds, Gaye’s lifelong turmoil seemed to be the fuel that lit the fire, so to speak, and made him what could be epitomized as a “silky, soul singer.”
Gaye was born in 1939 in Washington, D.C., and had a strained relationship with his cross-dressing minister father, but a loving, coddled one with his mother. His father’s demeanor caused much pain for Gaye, who was born Gay but added the “e” to his name to separate himself from his father, and as a tribute to the late Sam Cooke.
He served in the U.S. Air Force for a short time and eventually made his way to Detroit, where he says he was, “trying to hustle my way around Motown.” He was soon discovered and became what the documentary’s narrator, Jesse L. Martin, describes as “the prince of Motown, but it was an uneasy crown that he wore.”
What’s Going On shows Gaye as he churned out early hits for Motown Founder Berry Gordy and eventually courted and married Gordy’s sister, Anna, in 1962. She was 36, and he was 21. No matter what the age difference, this relationship also assisted Gaye with securing his own studio at Motown, where he was free to mix his recordings.
Less than two years after coming to Motown, Gaye was a sex symbol and was at the seat of the Motown family dynasty. “I was a prima donna and rather ridiculous about things,” Gaye said. But he had skills as none other. “He was versatile and could sing any type of music. He would ‘Marvinize’ it,” said singer Smokey Robinson.
Gaye wasn’t just satisfied with singing straight R & B; he wanted to explore other music types and reach a more diverse audience. Sitting on a stool, singing ballads, smoking a cigarette and being cool like Frank Sinatra was something he thought he could master. To this end he even cut an album of jazz standards, which didn’t sell many copies.
The title of his first hit, “Stubborn Kind of Fella,” served as a testament to his rebellious attitude and desire to break away from the traditional Motown sound. However, he was still uncertain about his superstar status. “He was so brilliant, and yet so unsure,” said fellow Motown artist Mary Wells. Wells, along with Kim Weston and the late Tami Terrell, was one of Gaye’s famous duet partners.
Gaye enjoyed many hits with Terrell, including “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” but tragedy struck when she died in October 1967, at the age of 24 due to a brain tumor. Gaye was grief-stricken and sank into a depression, from which it’s said he never recovered. But said depression only stirred his musical genius.
During an interview shared on What’s Going On, Gaye reflected: “In 1968, I stopped thinking about erotic fantasies and starting thinking about the war. I felt a strong urge to write music and to write lyrics that would touch the souls of men.” In 1971, he recorded the first of his so-called political albums, “What’s Going On,” which chronicled heroin, urban blight and the Vietnam War.
It took much cajoling for Gordy to release this album, because he was afraid it would ruin the sexual allure Gaye had commanded for so long. It turned out to be a smash; just what a politically conscious Black America needed in 1971.
Gaye gained more creative freedom and eventually moved to Los Angeles in 1972, where he found new love with a much younger woman named Janis Hunter. She was 16, Gaye was 33; and after a divorce from Anna, he and Janis were married. They had two children, Nona and Frankie, but the couple’s relationship was fraught with substance abuse.
While Gaye hadn’t lived a normal family life during his childhood, Janis said he was devoted and committed to making it work for his new family. “He did his best to create his own family, to have his children around him, to have a homeÉfor us it wasn’t an easy thing to do, because we were both heavily addicted to drugs and alcohol.”
In 1973, he recorded the hit album “Let’s Get It On,” which created an entire new meaning of the word “sexuality.” After years of socially conscious music, such as “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” (1971); “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)” (1971); and “Trouble Man” (1973), Gaye’s female audience were squirming in their seats once again.
But the substance abuse didn’t stop, and after much despair and an overwhelming need for sobriety, Gaye decided to go to Belgium. While there, he detoxed and immersed himself in his music, finally writing and recording “Sexual Healing,” which would be his last, big hit. After returning to the States in 1982, he easily slid back into the drug scene, which caused him to act “emotionally erratic” during his performances.
“His body was a billboard for his spiritual struggle, and the war was waged on the battlefield of his mind and his spirit, which is the very quality that made his music great, but the very vulnerability that made his life hell,” said cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson.
“Bits of my depression were put into my music,” Gaye said. His last public performance was a controversial rendition of the national anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star game. Gaye won two Grammy Awards for “Sexual Healing” in 1982.
In August, 1983, he eventually returned to his family home in Los Angeles. This led to increased tension between him and his father, who resented the late-night traffic and partying that his son brought with him. On April 1, 1984, a day short of his 45th birthday, after an argument spiraled out of control and Gaye reportedly beat his father, Marvin Gay, Sr. shot his namesake to death.
“Marvin died long before he was shot,” said Kitty Spears, his personal assistant. “He was spiritually drained and so tired.”
American Masters’ What’s Going On is chock full of performance footage of Gaye, interviews from industry giants, as well as cultural and music critics. The hourlong special premieres on PBS stations May 7 at 9 p.m. (ET). American Masters is produced for PBS by Thirteen/WNET New York.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is a film critic living in Chicago.
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