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Television Review

The trials of a gifted soul

Marvin Gaye's brilliance was tainted by his troubled life. Marvin Gaye's brilliance was tainted by his troubled life.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / May 7, 2008

Most people know a couple of salient facts about Marvin Gaye: He was a brilliant musician and he died a tragic death, shot by his father the day before his 45th birthday. Beyond that, though, the story of Gaye's life and music hasn't been widely told, and the PBS documentary "Marvin Gaye: What's Going On," which premieres tonight, feels long overdue.

Unfortunately, it also feels a bit thin, especially when it comes to Gaye's incalculable impact on the evolution of black popular music. With the 1971 release of "What's Going On," a conceptual masterpiece that explored the day's pressing political issues, Gaye single-handedly redefined soul music as both an artistic and social force. "When Marvin wanted to do a protest album, I was petrified," confesses Motown founder Berry Gordy, who initially refused to release the record that he later realized was the greatest piece of work Motown ever put out.

But Emmy-winning writer-director Sam Pollard is more interested in Gaye's troubled family and ensuing psychic struggles, and he focuses his film on the inner conflict that paved the way for Gaye to follow up his deeply spiritual, socially charged magnum opus with "Let's Get It On," one of the most erotic collections in pop music.

"I think we have two sets of gods in us . . . and we have to decide which power we are going to serve," Gaye says midway through the film, which features a small but well-chosen selection of archived interview and performance footage. Pollard posits that Gaye couldn't make that choice, and that at the root of the artist's failed struggle to reconcile the sacred and the sexual was his father, a cross-dressing minister prone to violent rages and vociferous disapproval of his musical, independent-minded son.

As it is with many gifted artists, the interior battles that doomed Gaye to bouts of depression and drug abuse were the very qualities that made him a great musician - the kind of creative soul who can "take the mundane and breathe the transcendent into it," according to cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson. Among the other talking heads who weigh in with frequently striking insights are Smokey Robinson, Martha Reeves, Mos Def, Nelson George, and Mary Wilson, as well as Gaye's sister Jeanne and ex-wife Jan - the 16-year-old inspiration for "Let's Get It On," with whom Gaye fell in love while still married to his first wife, Gordy's sister Anna.

Gaye spent most of his career at Motown, and the film provides a fascinating window on the early days of the fledgling company, a mecca for black musicians that Gordy ran much like an assembly line at the General Motors factory where he'd previously worked. But Gaye severed ties with the label when he fled the United States (and the IRS) for Belgium in the early '80s, and the last few years of the artist's life were marked by an ever-deepening chasm between his secular urges and sacred aspirations. On his final "Sexual Healing" tour, Gaye reportedly installed a preacher in one dressing room and a cocaine dealer in another.

By the time his spiraling substance abuse forced him to move back into his parents' Los Angeles house in 1983, Gaye was physically and spiritually drained, and Pollard suggests that the artist actually manipulated events to precipitate a deadly conflict with his father - a theory supported by a number of Gaye's confidantes. "We had," notes close friend Gladys Knight, "already lost him."

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.

Marvin Gaye: What's Going On

"American Masters"

On: WGBH-TV (Channel 2)

Time: Tonight, 9-10

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