PRESS PLAY Extreme emotional response is never quite as simple as stroking an erogenous zone or pressing a few buttons keyed to childhood memory, but like select performances in The Last Waltz, Marvin Gaye — The Real Thing in Performance reduced — or rather, elevated — me to tears.
This "first official" Motown-approved DVD anthology of TV performances comes freighted with expectations as large and moss-lined as a certain label head’s ego — and as baroque and biblical as the Gaye story itself (the very stuff of Shakespearean tragedies/Hollywood biopics, with the singer finding musical succor in his father’s church and later death at Marvin Sr.’s hands). Nonetheless, the execution is — mercifully — graceful, with performances drawn from biggies like American Bandstand and lesser-known programs such as Hollywood A Go-Go, intercut with mostly Dinah Shore interviews. Extras include a cappella studio vocal tracks of Gaye hits.
Invaluable is concert footage of Gaye on piano playing off a conga player on "What’s Going On" in 1972 (pulled from Save the Children) and a groovily camp "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" from a 1969 Hollywood show. These excerpts remind you that — yes, you heard right — Gaye was the genuine article (ever the son of a preacher man, he reveals in a talk with the doting Shore that he doesn’t remember writing What’s Going On and thus regards it as "divine"). Radiating an easy sexuality and often distractingly surrounded by wildly frugging go-go girls and later Solid Gold–style strutters, Gaye finds his true, sublime fit with Tammi Terrell, dueting on "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough" in mod street togs at Montreal’s Expo ’67, in one of only two known TV appearances by the pair. The duo manages to project a sheer joy that encapsulates the heartbreaking promise of an era on the precipice. Even the obvious lip-synching — emphasized by the fact that Motown stereo masters replace the mono TV audio — can’t hide Gaye’s heaven-sent powers as a performer, with a riptide of feeling and grace pulling close to the surface of his always handsome, often sleek image. (Kimberly Chun)