If you were ever unsure whether there’s an afterlife, look at Motown music of the 1960s and early 1970s.
Popular songs, like most elements of popular culture, tend to mirror the life of a Fourth of July skyrocket. If all goes well, it catapults into the air, explodes with an awesome show of sight and sound, then flakes off into tiny sparkles and disappears.
With Motown, that hasn’t happened, and there’s no better illustration of the music’s durability than Motown Magic, a new animated children’s show that just debuted on Netflix.
It revolves around Ben (voiced by Avia Fields), an 8-year-old boy growing up in present-day Detroit with his grandparents. Motown Records may have abandoned Detroit for the bright lights of L.A. many years ago — a decision that many feel came with a price in musical creativity — but in Ben’s Detroit, Motown never left.
Aimed at viewers 4 and up, Motown Magic tells simple tales rooted in gentle life lessons: Be kind to others, believe in yourself, don’t treat anyone or any group as lesser, that sort of thing.
Each of these lessons is tied into a classic Motown song, orchestrated and reworked to a greater or lesser degree so it’s compatible with the tone of Ben, his family and friends and the episode.
This isn’t revolutionary. Remember a few years ago when the songs of every artist from Billy Joel to Nine Inch Nails were reorchestrated as lullabies to help seduce infants into sleeping?
In this case, creator Josh Wakely — who also created Netflix’s Beat Bugs, from which Motown Magic is spun off — has given the songs a more involved mission. In the first episode, Ben’s teacher Miss Hernandez assigns class members to do something in front of the class that shows their uniqueness or special skill.
Like a lot of kids — hey, like a lot of grownups — Ben doesn’t think he has any special skill. His grandparents Ruby (voiced by Rhonda Morman) and Marvin (voiced by Ryan Robinson), who are straight out of the Motown era and play music around the house all the time, tell him he certainly does.
For starters, no surprise, he knows and loves all that music they play around the house. So music and dancing to music are among his special skills, and the whole episode is punctuated with “ABC,” the Jackson Five song slightly repurposed as a “Yes, I can!” anthem.
That song connection feels like a natural for an 8–year-old boy. Motown Magic throws slightly more of a curve ball, a smart one, when Marvin feels sad one day and Ben wants to find out why.
It turns out Marvin used to work on the assembly line at an auto plant in Detroit’s 1960s heyday. He takes Ben on a walk past a junkyard where all those classic cars lie piled in heaps, rusting back into the earth.
Grownups will quickly recognize this, and in a scary number of cases probably identify with it, as Marvin missing everything good about his long-gone youth. Ben, however, just wants Grandpa to stop feeling sad, and he sees his opening when Marvin says he’d love to take just one more drive in one of those sleek 1960s automobiles.
Personally, I’d have gone for a Mustang, Firebird or Camaro in that fantasy, but Ben’s aiming higher. He happens to have a friend who’s a Cadillac — hey, the show’s title is Magic, right? — named Jimmy Mack, which of course was the title of a 1960s Motown hit by Martha and the Vandellas.
So we are soon conjuring “Jimmy Mack,” though not with the raw, powerful voice of Martha Reeves. Motown Magic also isn’t going to blast this audience with the Contours belting out “Do You Love Me,” or Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops calling “Bernadette.” It isn’t going to dress up an elementary school romance with David Ruffin of the Temptations pleading “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.”
And that’s fine. Part of the genius of Motown songs lies in their breadth and flexibility. At the same time the kids were watching Motown Magic, Mom and Dad could have been hearing a different Motown tune, “It’s the Same Old Song” by the Four Tops, used in an equally seamless and appropriate scene in the non-children’s drama Ray Donovan on Showtime.
We might mention that one of Wakely’s partners here is Smokey Robinson, who wrote a lot of those songs in the first place.
Like many Motown fans, I’ve had different reactions to the afterlife of Motown songs. A few years back, when it felt like every other ad on television was the California Raisins singing “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” I wasn’t sure an entire generation of TV watchers should have thought the song was an ad jingle, not a Marvin Gaye masterpiece.
As years have passed, though, I think Marvin — and Gladys Knight, for that matter, who recorded it first — have reclaimed the song. Maybe in the end it’s no harm, no foul.
In any case, there’s little to dislike about Motown Magic, because among other things it’s a gateway. The 5-year-old viewer who watches Ben learn some good things from a gentle song is going to hear the original version of that song at some point, and maybe will be more inclined to appreciate it. “Jimmy Mack” won’t be his or her pop music of the moment, but it will be there.
In the meantime, it’s helping Ben and Grandpa Marvin feel a little happier about themselves and the world. You can’t ask more of the afterlife.