×

How Motown and ‘The Big Chill’ Revolutionized the Music and Advertising Industries

Motown Records stumbled into the 1980s from the ‘70s, watching its greatest hitmakers return to the charts via other labels — Diana Ross at RCA, Marvin Gaye at Columbia and, of course, Michael Jackson and his brothers at Epic. Its fortunes perked up a bit in 1982 with hits from Lionel Richie and DeBarge, but overall, the label was on a downhill slide from its glory days.

Then came 1983.

That year saw two significant events restore interest in Motown and its peerless catalog (and fatten its bank balance) that would resonate for decades — and would also affect the way film, television and music intersect.

May 1983 saw the debut of NBC’s Emmy-winning “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever.” The show was watched by 34 million viewers and introduced Jackson’s moonwalk to the world — cementing his status as the world’s biggest superstar — but it also had a huge impact on the legendary Motown quintet the Temptations. The group’s duel format with the Four Tops was one of the show’s centerpieces, and was an element the Temps and Four Tops would take on the road for decades to come. Meanwhile, the Temps’ former lead singers, David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks, revived their Motown hits with an assist from Daryl Hall & John Oates a year later and became a steady touring machine.

But more significantly for the label and its catalog, September 1983 saw the release of “The Big Chill,” a film laser-targeted at the Baby Boomer generation that included nine songs from Motown’s glory days. Lawrence Kasdan’s picture ran in theaters for a little more than four months, grossing $56.3 million — and the Motown-released soundtrack was just as popular as the film. The soundtrack reached gold status — half a million shipped — in three months, went platinum (a million) within six months and was certified six-times platinum in 1998. Three years after its release, it passed “Saturday Night Fever” to become the longest-charting contemporary soundtrack in history; it would stay on the  album chart for 161 weeks, peaking at No. 17. In 1985, long after “The Big Chill” was out of theaters, the only soundtracks that sold more copies were “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Purple Rain.”

But even more so, it was a game-changer for advertising, and film and TV. Producers started to take a hard look at how nostalgia could play in a contemporary setting with music as a driver, using original recordings rather than sound-alikes and rewrites. Before long, advertisers were turning to oldies to sell sneakers and automobiles, with Lincoln-Mercury driving the effort by featuring the music of the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and Martha & the Vandellas.

For the first time in a long while, an ad could even create a hit record: In 1986, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” was introduced to a new audience via the fictional, animated R&B covers “group” the California Raisins, which was originally created as an advertising vehicle for the raisin industry but ended up releasing four albums.

In the wake of the film’s success, even album rock radio started shifting toward older tracks such as the ones the film revived, such as the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get You Want” and Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” — a move that arguably could be called the dawn of classic-rock radio. Oldies radio, too, was on an upward swing as a genre — K-Earth’s first year strictly devoted to classics to the ‘60s and early ‘70s was 1985 — and the soundtrack expanded the number of Temptations, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson songs in the radio repertoire.

And all across America, nightclubs were getting in on the thirst for the Sound of Young America as “Motown Nights” sprang up across the country, especially in the boomer-heavy suburbs.

It also certainly didn’t hurt that Phil Collins, Soft Cell and the duo of David Bowie & Mick Jagger had hits with Motown classics in the first half of the ‘80s, further solidifying the enduring appeal of the material.

Five years after “The Big Chill’s” debut, Gordy sold the label to MCA for $61 million. Richie and Stevie Wonder were its hottest stars, but there’s little question that the catalog is the crown jewel — due in no small part to “The Big Chill” and “Motown 25.”

More Biz

  • Bert Salke and Jennifer Salke

    Feds Looked Into Amazon Studios Chief Jennifer Salke in College Admissions Scandal

    Federal investigators looked into Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke and her husband, Fox 21 Television Studios president Bert Salke, as they conducted a sprawling probe of cheating in elite college admissions, a source close to the case told Variety. It does not appear, however, that prosecutors will charge the Salkes in the case. The Salkes [...]

  • Variety Cord Cutting Placeholder Cable

    Big Blackout Looms as CBS, AT&T Go Down to Wire on Renewal Talks

    A blackout affecting CBS stations in major markets throughout the country looms as CBS and AT&T executives go down to the wire on negotiations for a retransmission consent deal covering 28 O&O stations. The sides have sparred publicly during the past few days as 11 p.m. PT Friday expiration of the previous contract approached. AT&T [...]

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    ICM Responds to WGA Packaging Lawsuit: Claims are 'Baseless' and 'Absurd'

    ICM Partners has asked a judge to dismiss the lawsuit filed against four major talent agencies by the Writers Guild of America as part of the larger war between agencies and the guild over packaging fees on TV series and movies. The guild sued ICM, CAA, WME and UTA in California state court in April, [...]

  • New York City NYC Placeholder

    CityFM Podcast Takes a Deep Look at New York’s Music Scene (Listen)

    First among the many projects listed at the beginning of New York Music Month in June was a WNYE radio show and podcast called CityFM that promised to “explore the city’s music culture, emerging artists and trends, and upcoming events told through the lens of what’s happening around the city in Summer 2019.” And while [...]

  • Live Nation Logo. (PRNewsFoto/Live Nation)

    Live Nation Confirms Placing Tickets Directly on Secondary Market at Artists’ Request

    Representatives for Live Nation, the world’s largest live-entertainment company and owner of Ticketmaster, confirmed that it bypassed conventional channels and directly placed thousands of concert tickets on the secondary market upon artists’ request, in an article published in Billboard. In a statement shared with Variety, the company acknowledged that it has facilitated the transfer of [...]

  • Costume designer Michele Clapton

    Costume Designers Fashion a Plan to Fight for Pay Parity in Upcoming Contract Talks

    The Costume Designers Guild Local 892 is gearing up to fight for pay equity in its 2021 contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, establishing a pay-equity committee to raise awareness of the scale disparity between the mostly female CDG membership and the mostly male membership of the Art Directors Guild Local [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content