BOOTLEG FILES 410: “Motown 25 – Yesterday, Today, Forever” (1983 TV special featuring Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye and the Supremes).
LAST SEEN: The full show is available in a six-part installment on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: A VHS version was released, but no official DVD version has appeared.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The lack of a DVD release may be tied to problems with the clearance of music and performance rights.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is possible.
On March 25, 1983, California’s Pasadena Civic Auditorium was home to a one-shot TV special that reunited several of the major stars of the Motown record label. The resulting production was called “Motown 25 – Yesterday, Today, Forever” and it is mostly remembered for two sequences: the extraordinary performance of a non-Motown song and a smackdown between the members of one of Motown’s most celebrated acts.
Beyond those legendary moments, however, “Motown 25 – Yesterday, Today, Forever” was a fairly mundane production that offered a bumpy celebration of the record label’s illustrious history.
The show got off to a bad start with an opening number featuring the Lester Wilson Dancers performing a cheesy interpretation of “Dancing in the Street.” The show’s host, a visibly ill-at-ease Richard Pryor, followed them by reading his lines off a TelePrompTer with wide-eyed discomfort. Pryor lamely joked about the star-studded evening by claiming, “I’ve seen stars and I’ve seen studs.”
For those looking to enjoy a memory lane stroll, “Motown 25” provided a reunion of The Miracles, who performed a medley of four of their classic tunes, and Stevie Wonder performing a medley of six of his top-charting songs. In both cases, the presentations seemed perfunctory, as if none of the singers were too eager to revisit their classic work.
Nostalgia addicts were equally out of luck in a “battle of the bands” featuring The Four Tops and The Temptations – neither group seemed to be in top spirit for the show. Marvin Gaye, who had a bitter break-up with Motown years earlier, was not originally scheduled to perform. But he showed up and gave the show a much needed energy boost with a moving monologue on African American music history and an appropriately soulful performance of “What’s Going On.” In retrospect, his appearance was the most poignant part of the show – a year later, his father shot him to death during a domestic dispute.
Gaye’s star-turn was matched by a boisterous reunion of The Jacksons, who performed four of their top Motown songs. But the real star of this segment was Michael Jackson, whose solo career was taking off in 1983. Jackson (along with his brothers) left Motown years earlier and he was not particularly eager to be part of the production. He only agreed to appear if he could perform his then current hit single, “Billie Jean,” which was released by the Epic label.
What happened next, of course, changed the course of Jackson’s career and popular music. Jackson’s kinetic performance, complete with the first public presentation of the Moonwalk dance, created a sensation that had not been seen since the Beatles’ arrival on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The taping of “Motown 25” had to be stopped in order for the electrified audience to regain its composure – and when the show was broadcast, Jackson was immediately elevated from a relatively benign pop star into a trend-setting music industry powerhouse based on this one number.
However, Jackson’s show stopping moment called attention to the problems with “Motown 25.” Despite its stellar line-up, few of the performers gave evidence of their talents. Two legendary ladies, Mary Wells and Martha Reeves, were only given about 30-seconds apiece to present samples of their best-known work – and, sadly, both women were far from their vocal primes. T.G. Sheppard, who recorded for Motown’s ill fated and mostly forgotten country music label in the 1970s, offered a bit of Nashville twang (which was completely out of place in the show’s line-up). Junior Walker and The Commodores also turned up, but neither sparked any fires. Lionel Richie, who abstained from a Commodores reunion, did a pre-taped solo turn and used his screen time to point out that the profits from the special were being used to finance sickle cell anemia research.
Even more confusing was the decision to bring out talent who had no connection to Motown. Adam Ant (of all people) performed an inane version of “Where Did Our Love Go?” while Linda Ronstadt did a duet with Smokey Robinson on “Tracks of My Tears” and “Ooh Baby Baby.” Dick Clark offered a brief overview of famous white artists who covered Motown tunes, Howard Hesseman and Tim Reid reprised their DJ characters from “WKRP in Cincinnati” and fast-talking comic actor John Moschitta Jr. also showed up on stage.
However, the most entertaining part of the production was never shown to the public: the notorious Supremes reunion, when Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong unexpectedly upstaged Diana Ross. Ross – who rejected a multi-song medley in favor of a single number – was initially confused as Wilson and Birdsong strayed from the choreography of their rehearsed routine and Wilson boldly took the lead vocals on “Someday We’ll Be Together.” But when Wilson closed the number by inviting Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. to the stage, Ross reacted violently. Just what happened next has been in dispute – some sources say that Ross physically pushed Wilson down the stage, while other sources say that Ross merely pushed away Wilson’s microphone while she was speaking. The videotape of the segment has never been publicly screened, but the news of Ross’ hissy fit confirmed her reputation as an imperious diva and the incident soured Wilson and Birdsong from doing any further reunions with Ross.
But the Ross temper was not the only thing missing from the show. A number of major Motown legends, most notably Gladys Knight and the Pips, were absent from the stage, and no praise was given to the contributions of the Funk Brothers to the Motown sound. After the show was staged, news leaked that James Jamerson, an influential bassist in the Funk Brothers, was denied a ticket to the show and had to purchase a seat from a scalper. He died five months later from alcohol-related health complications.
NBC broadcast “Motown 25” on May 16, 1983, and the program attracted an estimated 47 million viewers. The show won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Program and was nominated for eight other awards. Jackson and (inexplicably) Pryor received nominations for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program, but they lost to soprano Leontyne Price for her guest star turn on PBS’ “Live from Lincoln Center.”
MGM/UA Home Video released “Motown 25” on VHS video in July 1991. To date, however, there has been no DVD release. One can easily assume that issues relating to clearing music and performance rights have held up the DVD premiere. However, it is easy to locate enterprising bootleggers who sell pirated DVD copies made from the VHS release, and the full program has an unauthorized presentation in six installments on YouTube.
But anyone finding “Motown 25” might be surprised at the quotidian nature of the offering. Beyond Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” the program is much less magical than many people may realize.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!