‘What’s Going On’ The Life And Death Of Marvin Gaye

‘What’s Going On’ The Life And Death Of Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye is one of the great and enduring figures of American music.  His innovative mix of gospel, R&B, Soul and Jazz made him a huge and glamorous performing star, while records like ‘What’s Going On’ challenged and changed the face of popular music. Yet his life story is also one of personal torment, of bittersweet success, and of death by the hand of his father. 

He was one of the most profoundly influential black artists of all time – and yet a ‘troubled man’ who spent a lifetime fighting the inner demons that ultimately prevailed.  Our story is told through his music. Using the most striking and rarely seen performances, rare archive, Interviews, home movies and photographs from the Gaye family, this film will for the first time reveal the real Marvin Gaye.

Marvin made and lost countless millions, lived a life of outer grace but inner turmoil, created some of the most resonant, moving and influential music of all time, and destroyed himself in the process.

We explore his vulnerability as a child. Marvin’s father was a preacher in the “House of God”, a strange combination of austere Jewish Orthodoxy and the rollicking gospel of the black Pentecostal church. He was also a cross-dresser whose female exhibitionism filled the children with shame.  Later, Marvin would change the family name from Gay to Gaye. Beatings from his father were commonplace.

The young Marvin struggled to free himself from the fundamentalist faith and obsessions of his father. It helped that Marvin could sing, “like an angel”.  First in his father’s Pentecostal church and then with the doo-wop group ‘The Moonglows’. Soon Motown Records spotted Marvin and he was groomed by boss Berry Gordy for stardom. Marvin soon shocked the Motown crew by marrying the boss’s sister, Anna Gordy. Marvin was 20; Anna was 37. Their stormy relationship became a theme of his songs.

Marvin became a sex symbol and Motown’s biggest star.  By 1968, he had 3 of the top 5 hits in the charts. Indulging in the temptations of stardom – in his case, extra-marital sex and increasing drug dependence – Marvin struggled with the demons of his fundamentalist faith, and his fear of a vengeful Jehovah. Marvin’s domestic life became stormy. By now, Marvin had rejected his traditional clean-cut look for a ‘70s beard and jeans, and was seeking new sources of spiritual and political inspiration.  He spoke up for civil rights, the black ghetto and against the war in Vietnam in which his brother Freddie had been sent to fight. In 1971 against this backdrop he made What’s Going On which is, without doubt, his most important and influential record and a continuing inspiration to musicians. But when Motown boss Berry Gordy heard it, he hated it and refused to release it. Marvin waited till Gordy was out of town, and then paid for its release himself.  It sold 100,000 copies in one day, and went to the top of the pop and R&B charts.

We see performance of What’s Going On, about the increasing aggression in the world, Inner City Blues about the plight of the urban poor and Save the Children where Marvin looks back, and forward, to the vulnerability of the child.

Having left Anna, his wife, his next album, Let’s Get It On forsook politics and announced an erotic sensibility repressed during his earlier life. It also described his physical relationship with his soon wife-to-be Janis. She was 16, he was 34. They too fought till they parted. Marvin remained deeply troubled. He still competed with his father for his mother’s affections, became more dependent on drugs, and his life started to spiral downwards.

He fled to London where a Belgian businessman Freddy Cousaert took him to live in an Ostend boarding house in the hope of saving Marvin from self-destruction. There, a renewed Marvin wrote his last big hit Sexual Healing with biographer David Ritz, and returned “a new man and mega-star” to America, as it topped the charts.  Feted and adored by the media, playing the biggest shows and stadiums, Marvin couldn’t escape the old demons. Living with his parents, he became increasingly unstable.  When he caught his father abusing his mother, Marvin fought with him, for one last time. They were still competing for her love.  So his father, the cross-dressing Pentecostal preacher, shot Marvin through the heart. It was April Fool’s Day, 1984.

Iinterviewees include David Ritz (his co-writer and biographer), Lamont Dozier, Martha Reeves, Kim Weston, Marvin’s former wives, Anna and Janice, archive of his (now deceased) father, Marvin Snr, Jeffrey Kruger (Promoter), Jeanne Gay (sister), Elgie Stover (Music Producer) Bobby Taylor (friend and musician), and Irene Gaye (sister in law).

Performances include Distant Lover, Hitch Hike, How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), Pride and Joy, Stubborn Kind Of Fellow, Quiet Night Of Quiet Stars, I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Aint No Mountain High Enough, Inner City Blues, What’s Going On, Let’s Get It On, Save The Children, I Want You and Sexual Healing.

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