How Spike Lee Was Instrumental in Perfecting CNN’s Marvin Gaye Special ‘What’s Going On”

Spike Lee was a main source and key component in making CNN’s documentary special “What’s Going On: Marvin Gaye’s Anthem for the Ages,” a colorful and detailed retrospective on the album, producers at CNN said.

Lee, who is a prominent feature in the special, tells host Don Lemon — also a huge Marvin Gaye fan – Gaye’s music has impacted entire life, from discovering the record “What’s Going On” as a young man to using Gaye’s music in his films. The acclaimed director told Lemon that Gaye’s music has inspired many of his movies and believes it continues to inspire a new generation of fans 50 years later.

The 1970s was “the zenith of Black music,” Lee said, pointing to “Soul Train” as an example. “The world we lived in then, it was Black Power. ‘Soul Train,’ we just were so beautiful. The way we dressed, the way we were dancing… Black folks were getting down,” he remembered.

With his typical highly energetic tone and passion for Gaye on full display, Lee told Lemon that he found the record as a sophomore in high school and would listen to it at the Coney Island Library.

“They had turntables, so if you brought an album they had headphones, and you could put the album on and listen to it. So I would cut class and listen to this album,” Lee said. “This mojo right here is timeless. You listen to Marvin Gaye, this album right here, he’s singing to you.”

CNN documentary senior producer Elise Zeiger told TheWrap, “Spike is not only a huge Marvin Gaye fan, but also a passionate speaker on a range of topics so we knew he’d be an incredible voice for this documentary. We didn’t rely on him for direction but felt confident he could discuss all the ground this iconic album covered.”

Zeiger added, “He’s also used many of Marvin Gaye’s songs in other Spike Lee joints over the years.”

Lee previously got special permission from the Gaye estate to use a lot of his music in Lee’s Oscar-nominated film “Da 5 Bloods.” Gaye’s music is almost its own character in Lee’s Netflix film and features a rare a capella version of “What’s Going On.”

The “What’s Going On” album, which turns 50 years-old May 21, was inspired by Gaye’s surroundings in Detroit and personal ties to the Vietnam War, where his brother served in the military, Lee said.

“Marvin was getting a firsthand account of Vietnam from his brother,” Lee said. “But then, Marvin was in Detroit, the Big D, and he’s seeing the bloods come back on heroin, handicapped or in coffins. The song ‘What’s Happening Brother,’ that’s from someone who just came back to the world — they called the U.S. the world.”

Other sources in the special include Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, who both were around Gaye when he was recording “What’s Going On” in West Hollywood and in Detroit at Motown studio Hittsville U.S.A..

Gaye’s title track was originally a protest song against the Vietnam War, but in the last half-century has morphed to fit other social justice causes, like the Black Lives Matter movement.

“‘What’s Going On’ has been covered by so many performers over the decades, and in the last few years, it’s become an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement,” Zeiger said. “We wanted to know why this record still means so much to people after 50 years.”

There’s been an explosion of music documentaries, docuseries or specials recently, shining a spotlight on artists from The Bee Gees to Billie Eilish. There’s also a plethora of new biopic films and series inspired by the lives of musicians of color, including Billie Holiday (played by Andra Day, also a source in CNN’s special), Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner.

Zeiger attributed the rise in music-related projects to people’s growing desire to learn more about their hitmakers, especially in pop music.

“Viewers seemed to be intrigued by the method behind the madness, so to speak. Why do people want to understand the mind of Phil Spector or Brian Wilson and the magic of the album ‘Pet Sounds?’” Zeiger asked. “In the case of Marvin Gaye and this hit album ‘What’s Going On,’ when we observed how his music is still going strong today, we wondered what led Marvin to write these beautiful lyrics?  What was going on in the world, in his life and in his heart?”

Marvin Gaye was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 for his ” a huge contribution to soul music in general and the Motown Sound in particular.” The “What’s Going On” album remains No. 6 on Rolling Stone’s top 500 albums of all time list and the magazine ranked Gaye No. 18 on its list of the top 100 artists of all time.

Gaye died in 1984 one day before turning 45, after being shot in the chest by his father, Marvin Gay Sr., in the family’s home in West Adams, Los Angeles. He was honored with a lifetime achievement award at the 1996 Grammy Awards.

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