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"I've spent my whole life fighting. First my family, then my record company, then my two wives, and my dear father. But the hardest fight has been with my own demons. That made me who I am." -Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye (1939-1984) was one of the most groundbreaking and influential artists in music history. This two-disc collection, which contains both a biography and a live concert, will please both fans and newcomers alike.
Facts of the Case
This set compiles two DVDs. What's Going On: The Life & Death of
Marvin Gaye is a documentary about Gaye, using interviews and archive
pictures and footage to trace his troubled life and the effects it had on his
music. Greatest Hits Live is a filmed concert he gave 1976 in Amsterdam.
Here are the songs he performs on that disc:
Few artists lived lives as full of pain, despair and terror as Marvin Gaye. Even fewer could transform that pain into such breathtakingly beautiful music. Gaye's exquisite voice, his gift for magnificent melodies and complex yet uncluttered arrangements, his talent for elegant and poetic lyrics, all served to make him one of the most important artists of his time. But this was not just beauty for beauty's sake. Gaye was attempting to transform his agony into joy, to stand above it, to try to make some sense of it all. Gaye had lived enough for one lifetime: growing up with a violently abusive father, enduring the brutality of pre-Civil Rights era racism, fighting constantly with his record company for artistic freedom. Gaye tried to take solace in his fame and it wound up destroying him further with drug addiction, broken relationships, and bankruptcy. Having grown up in the church, he was desperately grasping for transcendence, for an escape from his pain. At least when he sang and performed he found it, however briefly. The story ends tragically and horrifically, of course, with his descent into cocaine addiction and his brutal murder by his own father in 1984. He left behind an immense and staggering body of work that continues to influence singers and musicians to this day.
From the beginning, Gaye was always fighting for freedom. His father, a Pentecostal preacher, took sadistic pleasure in beating his children while railing self-righteously (to get an idea of what Marvin Sr. was like, viewers need only look at the character played by Ossie Davis in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, who was patterned closely on him). Defiant and free-spirited, Gaye sought escape at the first chance he got, finding it when Detroit R&B label Motown took interest in his stunning voice. But at Motown, ironically enough, he traded in one domineering father figure for another. Motown head Berry Gordy, a former boxer, ran the label with an iron fist. Artists were told exactly what songs to sing, how they could dress, how to move onstage, and what they could and couldn't say in interviews. Though Gaye would enjoy a string of top ten hits for most of the '60s (such as "Ain't That Peculiar," "How Sweet It Is" and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine") with this formula, he quickly chafed under it. He grew tired of music that avoided mentioning social and political issues, that dealt with love only in a chaste and adolescent manner, and that was manufactured on an assembly line as rigid as any found in one of Detroit's car companies. At the end of the '60s, Gaye decided it was time to make a statement.
What's Going On?, his 1971 album, was a watershed moment, not just in Motown but also in music history. No other artist, except for maybe Bob Dylan, had released an album that was the product of one man's vision from beginning to end. He wrote, produced, arranged and sang the entire album, and dealt with issues as far-ranging as racism, the Vietnam War, the environment, drugs, inner-city violence, and adult sexuality. Motown hated it, of course, up until the moment it sold millions of copies. His artistic gamble had paid off: he was both a respected artist and a popular superstar. For the rest of his career, he would have total control over his music, and while that would bring its own pitfalls, at least in that area, he could feel unencumbered by anything.
Live in '76 captures him at the peak of his popularity in the '70s. It's far too short, clocking in at less than an hour, so many of his classics (such as "Mercy Mercy Me" and "I Want You") are missing, and way too many others are compressed into brief medleys. Nonetheless, it's a spectacular performance. Gaye is in peak form, his voice is crystal-clear, and the band is stellar. When he delivers a simmering version of "Let's Get It On," the concert kicks into a groove and doesn't stop. The versions of "What's Going On?," "Inner City Blues" and "Distant Lover" are almost definitive, showing off both Gaye's voice and the songs' melodies and rhythms perfectly. Gaye could sometimes be an inconsistent live performer, but here he was captured on a good night and backed with a great band, and the DVD captures one of the best performances he ever gave.
The story would not end happily. Gaye's career took a downturn in the late '70s and early '80s as music tastes changed. A costly and painful divorce left him nearly bankrupt, and increasing drug problems sapped his strength and creativity. Gaye would regroup in 1983 and enjoyed the biggest hit of his career that year, "Sexual Healing." One year later, in the midst of a heavy drug binge, he got into a nasty argument with his father, who pulled out a gun and shot him to death. He was 44 years old.
What's Going On tells Gaye's story through interviews, archival footage, and some re-enactments. The re-enactments can be a bit hokey at times. Luckily, they're brief and all but disappear once Gaye's career takes off. This is actually a companion piece to an earlier Gaye DVD biography issued by Eagle Rock in 2000 called Behind the Legend. The earlier disc focused on the last ten years of Gaye's life, while this one encompasses his whole career. It's a solid and comprehensive piece, examining Gaye's life in detail and unearthing some rare concert footage and audio recordings. Though it's only an hour long, it doesn't feel incomplete and all of the important moments in Gaye's artistic and personal life are covered. The interviews, with members of his family, friends, and collaborators are full of fascinating stories. The most thoughtful insights come from Gaye's biographer and sometime lyricist David Ritz, who dissects Gaye's life and work with uncanny precision. Though the DVD doesn't shy away from recalling some of the sad and sordid elements in his life, it doesn't focus on them either, and pays him his respect as the musical titan he was. Both longtime fans and newcomers alike will find it rewarding.
The video and audio quality on the documentary is variable, with the newest footage looking and sounding the best, and some of the archival footage not quite as well. The extras on the documentary include additional interviews (16:15). These are all illuminating but hardly essential. There are also extra performances (22:49), but these are all taken from the Live DVD and are therefore redundant. The Live disc is a reissue of an earlier DVD that was originally issued in 1999. The video and audio quality on the Live disc is not bad for a concert that's over 30 years old. Some grain and video glitches are present, but nothing that will interfere with the show.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Eagle Rock is usually a trademark of quality for music fans, but they somehow dropped the ball with the Live disc. The original 1999 issue added a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix, but that has inexplicably been excised from this reissue. There's no good reason for it, as no new content has been added to this version. Fans who have the older disc will unfortunately have to keep it, since this new version is incomplete.
Live gives an excellent (if far too short) picture of how good Marvin Gaye's music could be. What's Going On gives an equally good picture what went into making that music and how Gaye was able to sometimes defeat his demons to create it. Together the two discs make for an unbeatable package for anyone who has ever loved classic R&B.
The court will have to assess the usually law-abiding Eagle Rock a large fine for mysteriously scrapping a perfectly good 5.1 audio mix. Otherwise, this package is acquitted and is the best Marvin Gaye DVD package anyone could ever need.
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• Extended Interviews
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