This one hour film was shown last night (Friday 7th) on BBC4, and so is available to watch as a stream on the BBC iPlayer for the next week (UK only).
Digital channel BBC4 has a growing reputation for producing intelligent, well-researched and interesting documentaries – the kind of thing BBC2 used to do before it became clogged up with gardening, cookery, lifestyle and reality shows. Following last year’s excellent films about Factory and the New York punk, disco and hip hop scenes of the late seventies, Motor City’s Burning explored the music of sixties Detroit and put it in the context of the political, social and economic events of the time.
In the forties and fifties, Detroit was the industrial heart of America, and it was the assembly lines of the motor giants that famously inspired Berry Gordy to create a new way of running a record company. The aim was to establish both an indentifiable sound and a guarantee of quality and craftsmanship. Many people, then and now, bemoaned the lack of artistic freedom at Motown, but for the best part of the decade, the label achieved exactly what Gordy had envisioned and became the pre-eminent popular music of the era, at least the pre-eminent indigenous music. What it failed to reflect was the increasing alienation and victimisation of the city’s black population, and the fascistic behaviour of a (white) police force which acted more like an army of occupation.
The city exploded in 1967 with riots that left 43 dead. It was an event that changed Motown, and eventually led to its relocation to Los Angeles. It also helped politicize a section of white youth who rejected the American Dream as the consumerist mirage that it was. The MC5 and the Stooges were their bands. George Clinton’s P-Funk collective took parts of both Motown and the proto-psychedelic punk of the white bands. It was an incredibly creative time for the city. But Detroit’s economy, dealt a body blow by the riots and subsequent ‘white flight’, continued to decline alongside the car industry that was its lifeblood. Today it is, as David Was described, like a peanut shell with all the nutrients sucked out of it.
This documentary told the story of the entwined fortunes of the city and its music, with great archive footage, and an A list of interviewees including the three Stooges, two MC5’s, the lovable old rapscallion John Sinclair, Lamont Dozier, Martha Reeves and Mary Wilson (looking like she couldn’t even have been born in the sixties!). It did what documentaries ought to do – told the story clearly and entertainingly, with informed interviewees and no melodramatics. I’d recommend it to anyone, both as a piece of social as well as musical history.