Marvin Gaye's life story is such a double dose of arrogance and humility, achievement and failure and, perhaps most importantly, redemption, that it could work as two formulaic editions of "American Masters."
Marvin Gaye’s life story is such a double dose of arrogance and humility, achievement and failure and, perhaps most importantly, redemption, that it could work as two formulaic editions of “American Masters.” There’s an only an hour allotted, however, which marginalizes some of the triumphs, enhances the drug addiction and posits “Sexual Healing” as a pinnacle of achievement for Gaye, whose significance is undersold in this too-short feature. More footage of Gaye would have helped; his commentary comes from a single, undated interview.
Not quite an injustice to the singer who rose in the Motown system and created a monolithic pop masterpiece, but “What’s Going On?” does not elevate the subject in the manner of other “AM” docs. Through his biographers and fellow artists, a portrait of a man who suffered and masked his pain emerges along with the vision of a man who fought the secular and the religious his whole life. Doc confirms rather than enhances what is already known about him.
He had an abusive father — a cross-dresser and minister as the doc notes several times — who chastised Marvin’s desires to sing pop music. D.C. native Gaye had problems with authority — father, teachers, Air Force officers — and he drifted through life until he wound up in Detroit working as a studio musician.
It is mentioned but not enough is made of Harvey Fuqua bringing Gaye to Motown: Fuqua was the rare individual who segued from doo-wop singer and group leader in the 1950s to talent scout, A&R man and producer in the 1960s; what we might call a role model these days.
Gaye worked as a studio drummer and pianist yet his desire was to become a crooner, like Frank Sinatra. He bombed in that role and soon became part of the Motown assembly line but with a handful of differences. For starters, he married the boss’ sister, Anna Gordy, he could not dance and therefore had a wholly different presentation than the label’s other acts and, as a true positive, he invested emotion in his songs unlike any other R&B singer of the era. That paid off in “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” which became Motown’s biggest hit single.
Assorted experts — including the astute David Ritz, who penned Gaye’s bio with him and co-wrote “Sexual Healing” — and artists provide a timeline that comes and goes in Sam Pollard’s script. There are few specifics about Gaye going through a period of depression after the death of his singing partner Tammi Terrell, the rift between Berry Gordy and Gaye over his desire to move to L.A., periods of poverty and, finally, the debate over and effect of “What’s Going On,” an album that altered the course of popular black music.
Gaye’s later years are laid out chronologically yet the stories have holes in them — a second marriage, cocaine addiction, a move to Belgium and a drug relapse after “Sexual Healing.” Vintage footage of perfs is often too short to generate a thorough understanding of what made Gaye such a special artist.