MOTOWN paints the portrait of a young woman, seeking shelter from her own thoughts in the late hours of the night. She goes to the one place where she knows she can find it: an empty concert hall in the middle of the city. A short story about the quietness of grief, and the solace of music
I like to think that there was a single moment in my life, that provided the inspiration - the “spark” if you will - that led to the conception of the idea that resulted with ‘Motown’. But really, in the months leading up to committing pen to paper, there were weeks of aimless binge-watching and scattered thoughts; ideas that never made it past the scribbled note left on an iPhone.
I was born and raised in the small city of Canberra, Australia, to Chinese parents, who moved to Australia in hopes to give their children a better future. Growing up, I took the occasional weekend class learning Mandarin, my parent’s native tongue, but due to the desperate need to fit in amongst my English-speaking peers, I met the idea of learning the language with nothing more than apathy, like the recalcitrant teenager I was. My parents always wished I had committed to learning, but they were too nice to ever force me to. At the time, I never felt like it diminished my quality of life: after all, I was too preoccupied being in high school, playing guitar in a rock band, and I could make people laugh! These were things that were worth working on!
Talking to extended family members and the occasional family friend did prove difficult however. Speaking to my grandparents, in most cases the best I could muster up in Mandarin stopped short just after “Hello” and “Goodbye”. Not the most enlightening conversations. They didn’t mind though. The years went on, and I ended up in film school, with a relentless conviction.
Last year, I lost two of my grandparents. It was the first time I experienced such significant loss in my life. I remember finding out the news, and almost immediately getting into the car and going for a drive. I wasn’t sure how to feel. I thought about how I would never get to properly talk to my grandfather about his career as a philosophy professor, or what it was like for my grandmother to grow up during World War II. I tried to keep my composure and stay as calm as a could, not knowing how I would talk to other people about it, or even how to think about it. Suddenly, a Bon Iver track started to play over the radio. Within about thirty seconds, I was sobbing, having to quickly wipe the tears out of my eyes every six seconds, so I didn’t crash the car.
In that moment, I felt a total release: but it was only from hearing that song, and as if through complete reflex, accepting the sadness and the pain that I felt.
I like to think that it was that single moment that led to this film being made. But it probably wasn’t. It might have been inspired by Richard Olivier’s documentary about Marvin Gaye, the Motown soul superstar, who traveled to Ostend, Belgium in 1981, to escape from his celebrity. In the documentary, Gaye, who lost his longtime friend and collaborator Tammi Terrell to a brain tumour, seems to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders: speaking in a hushed voice; polite yet exuding a deep, unresolved pain. When he gets behind the piano however, there is a decisive transformation. He exudes joy, passion, and pure emotion. It’s as if for a moment, he finds salvation.
It might have been that documentary that set the idea for ‘Motown’ in place. But really, if I have to be completely honest, ’Motown’ is the result of every event I’ve ever lived, every person that I’ve ever met, and every feeling that I’ve ever felt. It’s the story of a girl who can’t quite communicate like others do. A girl who, for some reason, can only express herself in privacy, through the music of her own, and the music of others. It’s a story that I’d like to think my grandparents would be able to understand, and enjoy, regardless of the language barrier. It’s a story that I’d like to think would help them understand who I am, how much I miss them, and how much they still mean to me - regardless of the language barrier.