‘Detroit’: Martha Reeves, Otis Williams, Questlove on Story Behind Film’s Music

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas Detroit Motown
Dezo Hoffmann/REX/Shutterstock

On a sweltering evening in July 1967, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were about to perform their new single, “Jimmy Mack,” at a hometown show at Detroit’s Fox Theatre. The group was on a roll, with a string of Top 10 singles including “Dancing in the Street,” “Nowhere to Run” and “Heat Wave.” Yet the trio wasn’t allowed to perform its latest song.

“I was very excited,” recalls Reeves in an interview with Variety. “However, I never got a chance to sing it because [a stagehand] beckoned to me and told me to tell the audience that there’s a curfew because a riot has broken out, and to ask the patrons to leave peacefully. We went outside, and tanks were up and down Woodward Avenue in front of the Fox. It was panic — panic.”

The moment inspired a key scene in “Detroit,” the Kathryn Bigelow-directed retelling of the murder of three black men by police at the Algiers Motel during the riots. In the movie, the Dramatics — the real-life vocal group that was also on the bill that night and is at the center of the lightly fictionalized film — is set to take the Fox stage for a make-or-break performance when the riots intervene. (However, 50 years later, Reeves gets a footnote of poetic justice: “Jimmy Mack” is heard in the film and appears on the soundtrack.)

The events of that fateful week in Detroit sparked a long decline for both the city and its vibrant music scene. “After the riots, jobs became scarce. Things got real bad, quick,” says Otis Williams, the sole surviving original member of Motown legends the Temptations. “Motown moved from Detroit to L.A. in 1972, and things never got back to the way they were.”

Williams describes his harrowing personal experience as the riots were unfolding. “We were right there in the thick of it,” he says. “I was home with a young lady I was seeing, and [nearby] the National Guard was firing off a .50-caliber machine gun! Pow, pow, pow! They were spraying the area, and we laid down on the floor because I didn’t want to become a statistic. When it was safe to go out, I drove down 12th Street to a lot of the places we used to go and have fun, and it was like a ghost town.”

During the 1960s, Detroit spawned nearly the entire roster of Motown Records’ first decade — Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, the Temptations, the Four Tops and dozens more — and also many great jazz musicians, the proto-punk rock of MC5 and the Stooges, mainstream rockers like Bob Seger, the Eagles’ Glenn Frey and Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, and even Ted Nugent. While the riots helped spur a wave of groundbreaking, politically conscious songs like the Temptations’ “Cloud Nine” and “Ball of Confusion,” within five years the scene had largely left town.

Yet rendering an appropriate soundtrack for “Detroit” was a substantial challenge, not only because the film is mostly set over the span of a couple days but also because Motown songs from the era have been so heavily synced over the years — in films ranging from “The Big Chill” to “Platoon” and even by the ’80s animated advertising group the California Raisins. To tackle that task, Bigelow enlisted veteran music supervisors Randall Poster and George Drakoulias (composer James Newton Howard wrote the score) and brought in the Roots to create an original song, “It Ain’t Fair.” The film’s soundtrack, fittingly released on Motown, includes a mixture of familiar tracks from the label, such as “Jimmy Mack” and Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell’s “Your Precious Love” — “You couldn’t really not have [hits],” Poster says — along with songs from lesser-known soul singers Jerry Williams and Brenda Holloway and the Dramatics themselves, who went on to a long if unspectacular career after the riots.

For Poster and Drakoulias (who collaborated on Todd Phillips’ “Hangover” films and other titles from the director), finding many of those more obscure songs, let alone securing the rights for them, was a challenge. “It had to be very period-specific,” Poster says, “so we keyed in on the Dramatics and then saw what else came out on [related] small labels during that period, who owned it, and put the puzzle together. We also consulted some [soul-compilation] producers and looked at Detroit radio-station playlists from the time. There’s a lot of music in the movie but it’s not meant to be a jukebox musical — I think Kathryn’s intent was to have it be part of the fabric of the story and not really take the audience out of the movie, but provide them with the context of the period and community.”

The effort paid off: The music perfectly complements the film’s precise period details, ranging from the clothes and cars to the appliances — and even the film stock.

“Kathryn did a lot of research with the real people involved [in the 1967 incident],” Drakoulias says. “And they said there was music coming from everywhere — like in the pool scene, there’s a car driving by playing music; there’s music playing in the motel room, and another song playing outside by the pool. She shot it very documentary style, and that’s the way we tried to make it feel.”

The depictions of police brutality in the film are all too accurate, Reeves says. “You could feel the pressure building up,” she recalls.“There was a sense of ‘How long can this go on?’ You’d see people getting pushed into Black Mariahs [police vans] by the ‘Big Four,’ a unit here that had a reputation for beating up on people of color — they were called that because there would be four big white men with sticks and brutal attitudes, and they’d jump out of these big station wagons and just attack people. On one occasion they busted this one house and were loading people into the Black Mariah, and they literally kicked one of the ladies into the [van]. No matter what her occupation was, she shouldn’t have been treated that way. We all could sense that some day a rebellion was going to happen.”

In an era when police violence against the black community remains all too prevalent, Questlove of the Roots says both the group’s song in the film and today’s social climate evoke the past and the present.

“[‘Detroit’] is a true story, and sadly it still resonates today,” he says. “Because of that, we wanted to make a song that reflects not only the times of 1967 but also 2017 — and hopefully not the future. We wanted it to sound like Detroit, and message-wise we wanted to have an impact similar to that of Motown classics like Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ and ‘Ball of Confusion’ by the Temptations. The song has a warm texture to it but also a really strong message about where I feel black people are right now — at a boiling point, with innocent lives being ended in an unjust and unfair manner.”