Pros:lots of music, some candid interviews (including some revealing ones of Gaye)
Cons:some reenactments, giving mother a pass (as her son would have wanted)
The Bottom Line: A lot was going on, not just in the recording studio
Plot Details: This opinion reveals everything about the movie's plot.
In an archival interview included in the one-hour 2006 documentary “What's Going On: The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye” put together by Jeremy Marre and broadcast in the “American Masters” series on PBS, Gaye (né Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr. in SE DC in 1939) proclaims himself the world’s greatest singer. That did not go down well with me. I don’t think he was even the best Motown male singer of his time. I’d place him behind Smokey Robinson (of the Miracles), Levi Stubbs (of the Four Tops), David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks (of the Temptations). (All of them moved/danced better than Gaye, too.) I know that many listeners were dazzled by “Sexual Healing,” (1982, the only post-Motown album released during his lifetime), and, for that matter, “What’s Going On,” but in general I like Gaye’s duets with Tammi Terrell (né Thomasina Winifred Montgomery, 1945-1970) better than his solo work, and indeed his duets with Kim Weston better than his solo work. (He also recorded with Diana Ross, but their duets were very vapid.)
Clearly, the singer(/drummer) was traumatized by Marvin Pentz Gay, Sr., a Hebrew Pentecostal preacher who deplored “the devil’s music,” beat his son regularly and brutally, further confused him by cross-dressing and hitting vodka heavily, and shot his son dead with a pistol his son had bought for him April Fool’s Day (the eve of the son’s birthday) 1984.
Trying to block jokes about being gay, Marvin Jr. added the “e,” according to the documentary, though establishing some distance in his name from Marvin Sr. surely must also have been among the motivations. Marvin Jr. married the (older) sister of Motown founder/impresario Barry Gordy Jr, Anna.—at least in part from careerist considerations, and then was pathologically jealous about what he imagined she was up to with other men and with women (including his singing soulmate Tammi Terrell).
Cocaine abuse reached debilitating levels (not to mention cost) and he and his second (much younger) wife can aptly be classified as junkies (as she acknowledges in interview footage). Though he allegedly cleaned up in Belgium in 1981, the autopsy found not only cocaine by PCP (angel dust) in his system.
I don’t remember who suggested that by provoking his unstable father to whom he had given the pistol (an unlicensed .38 Smith & Wesson ) with which he would be shot, Gaye committed a form of suicide—a form that would also bring down his father once and for all (in fact, Marvin Sr. served no prison time, pleading no-contest to a voluntary manslaughter charge and getting a six-year suspended sentence with five years probation; he lived until 1998).
Marvin Jr. certainly had some good reasons to be messed up and money and fame are often not impediments (au contraire!) to drug abuse (see, for instance, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, et al.). The personal story is sad. There is no inquiry into how Junior’s close relationship with his mother might have influenced his pathological relationships with women. There was a strong oedipal dynamic, though in this version the father kills the son rather than the son unknowingly killing the father.
The documentary is roughly half career, half personal pathology, though the disc includes extended concert footage and extended interviews, adding 40 minutes to the total package.
I thought the sister, the second wife, and Kim Weston provided valuable insights, and the scenes of Marvin Senior watching Marvin Junior spout off are appropriately creep. I was pleased that the movie included part of Gaye and Terrell doing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and didn’t need the movie to know of the saga of Norman Whitfield pushing for the string-heavy rendition of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” that I consider the closest to an indispensable Marvin Gaye recording (yes, better than the one on the great Miracles album “Special Occasion”!).
Along with the uncritical acceptance of the saintliness of the mother trying to protect her son from her diabolical husband (a sin of omission), the shadowy re-enactments (sins of commission) detract from the movie, and cost the DVD a star in my rating of it.
©2012, Stephen O. Murray
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Viewing Format: DVD
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age