The Late Movies: Happy Birthday, Motown!

Fifty years ago, Berry Gordy, a songwriter for local Detroit acts like The Matadors and Jackie Wilson, borrowed $800 from his family and founded two record labels that became incorporated a year later as Motown Record Corporation. In its half-century of existence Motown forged an unmistakable sound in popular music, turned a number of artists into superstars and legends (from 1961 to 1971 alone, the label churned out 110 top 10 hits), and helped bridge the racial divide with songs that everyone, regardless of their color, could dance to.

To celebrate the last 50 years and, we hope, many more to come, here are some of my personal favorite (highly subjective and whittled down from a much larger list) Motown classics, plus a few surprises at the end.

Too Busy Thinking About My Baby

"Too Busy Thinking About My Baby," written by Motown songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong and Janie Bradford (the receptionist at Mowtown's Hitsville U.S.A. studio who helped Strong write Motown's first big hit, "Money (That's What I Want)", while the two were still in high school) was first recorded by The Temptations and later by Jimmy Ruffin and Marvin Gaye. Gaye's 1969 is my favorite of the three, mostly because the bass line that drops in 10 seconds into the song hits you like kick in the chest.

I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)

"I Can't Help Myself" was written and produced by Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian Holland and Edward Holland, Jr., who were Motown's main production team and considered by many critics to be one of pop music's greatest songwriting teams (I concur). The Four Tops recorded the song in 1965 and it hit number one on the R&B charts and the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for two non-consecutive weeks. Rolling Stone ranked the song #415 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Baby Love
Another Holland-Dozier-Holland composition, "Baby Love" was recorded by the Supreme in 1964. It was the groups most successful single, reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks, number one on the UK Singles Chart for two weeks and #324 on Rolling Stone's list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. This song also made the Supremes the first Motown artists to have more than one number-one single (they continue to hold the record for most number-one hits with twelve).

Ball of Confusion
I'm putting up two videos for this song. One is a live version from The Smokey Robinson Show, because why bother doing a Motown video post if you don't get to see the Temptations dance? The other is an imovie project that falls into my favorite YouTube genre: music video for a song that is composed of generic images of things mentioned in the lyrics.

The Tears of a Clown
Stevie Wonder and his producer Hank Cosby wrote the music for "The Tears of a Clown," but wonder struggled with a song to go with the instrumental track. He brought it to the 1966 Motown Christmas party to see if Smokey Robinson could come up with anything for it. Robinson noted that the song "sounded like a circus," and ran with it. The song became the number-one hit on both the pop and R&B charts was The Miracles only #1 hit during Robinson's time as lead singer. Fun fact: Robinson has two children named Berry (after Motown founder Berry Gordy) and Tamla (after the Motown subsidiary label).

Dancing in the Street
The idea for the song came to producer William "Mickey" Stevenson after watching kids in the Detroit streets open up fire hydrants to keep cool in the summer. While Martha Reeves' recording was intended as a party song, "Dancing in the Street" took on additional meaning during the Civil Rights movement when organizers used it as an anthem at demonstrations. The Martha and the Vandellas' version of the song is preserved by the Library of Congress to the National Recording Registry.

Uptight (Everything's Alright)
"Uptight" was the first Stevie Wonder single that Wonder actually had a hand in writing. It also saved his career. The then-fifteen-year-old singer had had only one number-one hit and only two other singles in the Top 40. To top things off, his voice was changing and Berry Gordy worried that Wonder wouldn't be commercially viable anymore. Wonder was in danger of being dropped from the label, but "Uptight," based around an instrumental riff that Wonder had written, hit the top of the Billboard R&B Singles chart and sat there for five weeks. This video is from a 1972 Rolling Stones concert. Wonder and his entire band join the Stones for "Uptight" and then kick into "Satisfaction."

Standing in the Shadows of Motown
Standing in the Shadows of Motown is a 2002 documentary about some of the great unsung heroes of pop music. The Funk Brothers were an uncredited collection of studio musicians who performed on Motown Records' recordings between 1959 and 1972. According to the film, they played on more number-one hits than The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys combined.

The Motown Song
I'm not normally a fan of Rod Stewart. However, seeing as we're both white guys who love soul music and can't dance, I have a soft spot for this song (and its video) about how awesome Motown is. Also: The Temptations. In a flying Cadillac. OMG. WTF. [Because this last video may start to play automatically, I've stuck it on its own page. Click the "2" below.]

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Bad Moods Might Make You More Productive
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iStock

Being in a bad mood at work might not be such a bad thing. New research shows that foul moods can lead to better executive function—the mental processing that handles skills like focus, self-control, creative thinking, mental flexibility, and working memory. But the benefit might hinge on how you go through emotions.

As part of the study, published in Personality and Individual Differences, a pair of psychologists at the University of Waterloo in Canada subjected more than 90 undergraduate students to a battery of tests designed to measure their working memory and inhibition control, two areas of executive function. They also gave the students several questionnaires designed to measure their emotional reactivity and mood over the previous week.

They found that some people who were in slightly bad moods performed significantly better on the working memory and inhibition tasks, but the benefit depended on how the person experienced emotion. Specifically, being in a bit of a bad mood seemed to boost the performance of participants with high emotional reactivity, meaning that they’re sensitive, have intense reactions to situations, and hold on to their feelings for a long time. People with low emotional reactivity performed worse on the tasks when in a bad mood, though.

“Our results show that there are some people for whom a bad mood may actually hone the kind of thinking skills that are important for everyday life,” one of the study’s co-authors, psychology professor Tara McAuley, said in a press statement. Why people with bigger emotional responses experience this boost but people with less-intense emotions don’t is an open question. One hypothesis is that people who have high emotional reactivity are already used to experiencing intense emotions, so they aren’t as fazed by their bad moods. However, more research is necessary to tease out those factors.

[h/t Big Think]

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Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
The 10 Wildest Movie Plot Twists
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

An ending often makes or breaks a movie. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as having the rug pulled out from under you, particularly in a thriller. But too many flicks that try to shock can’t stick the landing—they’re outlandish and illogical, or signal where the plot is headed. Not all of these films are entirely successful, but they have one important attribute in common: From the classic to the cultishly beloved, they involve hard-to-predict twists that really do blow viewers’ minds, then linger there for days, if not life. (Warning: Massive spoilers below.)

1. PSYCHO (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock often constructed his movies like neat games that manipulated the audience. The Master of Suspense delved headfirst into horror with Psycho, which follows a secretary (Janet Leigh) who sneaks off with $40,000 and hides in a motel. The ensuing jolt depends on Leigh’s fame at the time: No one expected the ostensible star and protagonist to die in a gory (for the time) shower butchering only a third of the way into the running time. Hitchcock outdid that feat with the last-act revelation that Anthony Perkins’s supremely creepy Norman Bates is embodying his dead mother.

2. PLANET OF THE APES (1968)

No, not the botched Tim Burton remake that tweaked the original movie’s famous reveal in a way that left everyone scratching their heads. The Charlton Heston-starring sci-fi gem continues to stupefy anyone who comes into its orbit. Heston, of course, plays an astronaut who travels to a strange land where advanced apes lord over human slaves. It becomes clear once he finds the decrepit remains of the Statue of Liberty that he’s in fact on a future Earth. The anti-violence message, especially during the political tumult of 1968, shook people up as much as the time warp.

3. DEEP RED (1975)

It’s not rare for a horror movie to flip the script when it comes to unmasking its killer, but it’s much rarer that such a film causes a viewer to question their own perception of the world around them. Such is the case for Deep Red, Italian director Dario Argento’s (Suspiria) slasher masterpiece. A pianist living in Rome (David Hemmings) comes upon the murder of a woman in her apartment and teams up with a female reporter to find the person responsible. Argento’s whodunit is filled to the brim with gorgeous photography, ghastly sights, and delirious twists. But best of all is the final sequence, in which the pianist retraces his steps to discover that the killer had been hiding in plain sight all along. Rewind to the beginning and you’ll discover that you caught an unknowing glimpse, too.

4. SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983)

Sleepaway Camp is notorious among horror fans for a number of reasons: the bizarre, stilted acting and dialogue; hilariously amateurish special effects; and ‘80s-to-their-core fashions. But it’s best known for the mind-bending ending, which—full disclosure—reads as possibly transphobic today, though it’s really hard to say what writer-director Robert Hiltzik had in mind. Years after a boating accident that leaves one of two siblings dead, Angela is raised by her aunt and sent to a summer camp with her cousin, where a killer wreaks havoc. In the lurid climax, we see that moody Angela is not only the murderer—she’s actually a boy. Her aunt, who always wanted a daughter, raised her as if she were her late brother. The final animalistic shot prompts as many gasps as cackles.

5. THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995)

The Usual Suspects has left everyone who watches it breathless by the time they get to the fakeout conclusion. Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), a criminal with cerebral palsy, regales an interrogator in the stories of his exploits with a band of fellow crooks, seen in flashback. Hovering over this is the mysterious villainous figure Keyser Söze. It’s not until Verbal leaves and jumps into a car that customs agent David Kujan realizes that the man fabricated details, tricking the law and the viewer into his fake reality, and is in fact the fabled Söze.

6. PRIMAL FEAR (1996)

No courtroom movie can surpass Primal Fear’s discombobulating effect. Richard Gere’s defense attorney becomes strongly convinced that his altar boy client Aaron (Edward Norton) didn’t commit the murder of an archbishop with which he’s charged. The meek, stuttering Aaron has sudden violent outbursts in which he becomes "Roy" and is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, leading to a not guilty ruling. Gere’s lawyer visits Aaron about the news, and as he’s leaving, a wonderfully maniacal Norton reveals that he faked the multiple personalities.

7. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

Edward Norton is no stranger to taking on extremely disparate personalities in his roles, from Primal Fear to American History X. The unassuming actor can quickly turn vicious, which led to ideal casting for Fight Club, director David Fincher’s adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel. Fincher cleverly keeps the audience in the dark about the connections between Norton’s timid, unnamed narrator and Brad Pitt’s hunky, aggressive Tyler Durden. After the two start the titular bruising group, the plot significantly increases the stakes, with the club turning into a sort of anarchist terrorist organization. The narrator eventually comes to grips with the fact that he is Tyler and has caused all the destruction around him.

8. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)

Early in his career, M. Night Shyamalan was frequently (perhaps a little too frequently) compared to Hitchcock for his ability to ratchet up tension while misdirecting his audience. He hasn’t always earned stellar reviews since, but The Sixth Sense remains deservedly legendary for its final twist. At the end of the ghost story, in which little Haley Joel Osment can see dead people, it turns out that the psychologist (Bruce Willis) who’s been working with the boy is no longer living himself, the result of a gunshot wound witnessed in the opening sequence.

9. THE OTHERS (2001)

The Sixth Sense’s climax was spooky, but not nearly as unnerving as Nicole Kidman’s similarly themed ghost movie The Others, released just a couple years later. Kidman gives a superb performance in the elegantly styled film from the Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenábar, playing a mother in a country house after World War II protecting her photosensitive children from light and, eventually, dead spirits occupying the place. Only by the end does it become clear that she’s in denial about the fact that she’s a ghost, having killed her children in a psychotic break before committing suicide. It’s a bleak capper to a genuinely haunting yarn.

10. MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

David Lynch’s surrealist movies may follow dream logic, but that doesn’t mean their plots can’t be readily discerned. Mulholland Drive is his most striking work precisely because, in spite of its more wacko moments, it adds up to a coherent, tragic story. The mystery starts innocently enough with the dark-haired Rita (Laura Elena Harring) waking up with amnesia from a car accident in Los Angeles and piecing together her identity alongside the plucky aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts). It takes a blue box to unlock the secret that Betty is in fact Diane, who is in love with and envious of Camilla (also played by Harring) and has concocted a fantasy version of their lives. The real Diane arranges for Camilla to be killed, leading to her intense guilt and suicide. Only Lynch can go from Nancy Drew to nihilism so swiftly and deftly.

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