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A Tribute To Marvin Gaye's Forgotten Classic


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Forty years ago, the movie "Trouble Man" debuted in theaters. It starred Robert Hooks as a tough guy hustler named Mr. T - no, not the one of from "The A-Team." Mr. T makes his living sticking his neck out to help people who can pay him, and for people who need his expertise to discreetly solve problems.

The film fell short of blockbuster status, and was even included on one critic's list of the 50 worst films of all time. But it did leave a legacy in at least one aspect: its music. That's because the filmmakers made an inspired choice to hire Motown legend Marvin Gaye to put together the soundtrack. I recently spoke with saxophonist and music producer Trevor Lawrence. His work is heavily featured on the soundtrack. And I also spoke with director Cameron Crowe. You might remember his films "Jerry Maguire" and "Vanilla Sky." He contributed to the liner notes on the album. We began our interview with a listen to the main theme of the soundtrack, so people could get a sense of Marvin Gaye's musical vision.


HEADLEE: Not just the very distinctive sound of Marvin Gaye singing, but a style of music there that I think most people would hear and immediately identify as coming from the '70s. So, Trevor Lawrence, let me ask you: How representative is this score of the era in which it was written?

TREVOR LAWRENCE: Very representative. It's rhythmic, and the words that he's singing there, it sort of describes the movie. It's almost like the beginning of an opera. It's like an opera piece, in a way, to me.


LAWRENCE: There were a couple of other movies that had the R&B music of the time in it, but it wasn't like the way Marvin did it. What Marvin actually did in the album, it's both the source music and the score music all mixed in one. And on the album itself, it's - I say it's like opera, because it sort of describes the film.


HEADLEE: Well, Cameron, let me ask you, here, because it wasn't too long, he wrote this. He had unbelievable success with the album "What's Going On?" Many artists would follow up a very successful album with another album to kind of, you know, build on that success. Why do you think Marvin instead went to this, scoring a film, something he'd never done before?

CAMERON CROWE: Well, this piece of music and the stuff that Trevor worked on with Marvin Gaye, it is really a lost masterpiece link. Marvin had just come from making "What's Going On?" in Detroit. He's reestablished himself in Los Angeles, and is free now as an artist. He's controlling his own destiny. And rather than jump right into another pop album, he took on this job of scoring "Trouble Man." But, as Trevor says, it's so much further than just a scoring gig. The guy did a symphony. He recorded the album and the music in several different ways. And thanks to Harry Weinger and Universal Music, they dug into these archives and got it all, and took years to piece together all this music that they did. And really, it is the missing link between all those great Motown years for Marvin Gaye that culminated in "What's Going On?" and everything that would come.

HEADLEE: OK. So, explain that to me. If this is the missing link, what are you hearing in this score that then leads to what comes after?

CROWE: Well, Trevor can probably tell you what was happening in the studio. But as Marvin himself said in the '80s, in an interview, he said this is a glimpse of where he wanted to go, that it was symphonic music, and it was the music, really, that was in his soul and in his mind. And so I think he was chasing music that he was feeling and hadn't yet recorded.

LAWRENCE: Yeah. You know, Marvin - in addition to being the great voice and the great songwriter - was also a great musician. He really loved music. His music was always more, I guess you could say, jazzy than the regular R&B music.

HEADLEE: Trevor Lawrence, how connected was Marvin to this actual recording? Did he just write the music and then hand it off?

LAWRENCE: No. What people do is they create the cues in a small way, and then the orchestrator will orchestrate it. And Marvin was hands-on to everything. When I started - the first session that I did with Marvin was for the opening song on the album. And that was all live music. You know, remember, when Marvin did this, synthesizers were just coming around. That music was really handwritten music.

HEADLEE: And we do hear the Moog a lot in this soundtrack.

CROWE: Yeah.

LAWRENCE: Well, yeah. But he - that Moog - the Minimoog was the first synthesizer. It was a Minimoog. It was a mono instrument. It only played one note. On a song that we did called "T Plays it Cool" on the album, which many years later, my son was playing this record by Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. And I heard it, and I said, oh, wait a minute. You know, I played that. And he said, no, you know.

HEADLEE: Right. Let's take a listen to the track they're talking about, "T Plays it Cool."


LAWRENCE: So, he actually had that Minimoog, and played that. Those things were overdubbed. You know, everything else was live.


HEADLEE: And so, Trevor Lawrence, that's actually you. That's you playing...

LAWRENCE: Yeah, that's...

HEADLEE: ...the tenor sax there.

LAWRENCE: Yes. And if you listen to it closely, now, what you'll notice is that it's a loop. The drum is a drum loop. Now, back in '72, there were no samplers. What they did was they took a piece of tape, and they had a two-track tape machine, and they made that pattern, they made a loop. It's like a figure eight around the tape reel, which I'd never seen before.


LAWRENCE: Actually, the way that we did these, my playing - there was nothing written. What he did is I'd be in the room and he'd - I had to have my headphones on. And he'd say, hey, man, you know, sing something. And I'd do the best I can to get close to it to get it started, and then I'd keep playing, you know what I mean?


HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm speaking with saxophonist Trevor Lawrence and film director Cameron Crowe. We're talking about the rerelease of the "Trouble Man" soundtrack. It was composed by the late Marvin Gaye. And, in fact, you know, Cameron, listening to the soundtrack, it's almost as though he's using Trevor, he's using the tenor sax as a replacement for his voice. Did you hear that, as well?

CROWE: Yeah. He's dueting, definitely, with Trevor, and they're in a serious groove on this recording. I'm just so happy that the pieces were found, because so often in film and in music, this stuff just disappears. It goes out the back door. It gets recorded over or destroyed. The fact that all this stuff was kind of reassembled and curated so we can hear the great score, the one great score, that Marvin Gaye did - and this is a glimpse of where he would have been had he still been with us.

HEADLEE: Well, Cameron, you pointed out you're particularly fond of another song on this album that's called "T at the Cross." I want to take a listen to it really quick, and then you can tell us why you like it so much.

CROWE: Great.


HEADLEE: So, Cameron, why do you like this piece so much?

CROWE: Well, it's like the best film composition stuff. It's both invisible, and it gets under your skin. And it's kind of another world that it takes you into, and it's the world of the characters. It's the feel of the movie. And so much of the soul of the movie lives in the composition and the score. And this is just masterful score work.


CROWE: It makes a lot of the guys doing it now seem pretty work-a-day standard. And you can imagine if you're working on a movie like "Trouble Man" and this comes in as your score, you want to go shoot some more stuff.



HEADLEE: For those people who aren't aware of the process, I mean, obviously, this is something you're hyper-aware of. And it's something you talk about in the liner notes - how difficult it is to create a soundtrack that actually works in conjunction with the film. Help me understand exactly why that is. What makes it so difficult?

CROWE: Well, it's a tough marriage sometimes, because sometimes the music - if you hear a great song, you say, oh, it would be great to hear that in a movie. That music is already its own movie. It's so powerful, it doesn't need the movie, nor does the music need to be used any further than the way it's been performed already. So, it's an odd marriage that you hit sometimes, where the movie either needs to step aside and let the music play, or the movie needs to use the music to just kind of strengthen what's already there. But what's often the case is that the marriage is rocky.

So, you're in the editing room, and you're trying all kinds of different music. And then you'll find some odd little guitar line that ends up being more powerful than a big piece of music that you thought you would need. So, there's a lot of alchemy that goes into it.

What I think Marvin and Trevor did was give a huge outpouring of gorgeous music that he gave to the filmmakers to use in whatever way they would need to use it, which rarely happens. Usually, it's work made by the yard, almost. And this is just a gorgeous symphony, as well as great tracks and an outpouring of music that was in, as Trevor says, Marvin's jazz soul.

He originally started wanting to be a jazz performer. And his experience with Motown and, like, getting vectored into R&B and those great duets with Tammi Terrell was not what he originally wanted to do. I think what he said in the beginning was: I want to be Frank Sinatra. Why can't I be Frank Sinatra? And his first record was an attempt to be that. And this recording shows you that he's heading back there, and ultimately, he started making these records where today, you listen to it and you say he is Sinatra. He got there.

HEADLEE: Well, in your liner notes, Cameron, you talk about how proud Marvin Gaye was of his work on this soundtrack, of his score. So we found a clip of him actually talking about that very thing on the BBC. Take a listen.


HEADLEE: It's kind of a contemplative moment there, him saying that he might be dead and gone before he's recognized for this score. Why do you think he said that, Cameron?

CROWE: Well, I think when he did that interview, this recording, "Trouble Man," was loved, but I don't know that it had achieved the kind of stature that it has now. And Marvin had gone back and he did this album "I Want You" that I think he was very happy with, but I think his heart was still drifting back to this experience that he had making "Trouble Man." And that's what he's talking about.

And when you listen to that whole interview, he really starts to go to a very loving place talking about this period in his life that Trevor and he, you know, spent this time making this music during. And so it just continues to be a fascinating glimpse of one of the greatest artists and how he got to the incredible position that he got to. He came here for a while and did music for movies, and it was gorgeous, and then he moved on. But he never forgot this phase.

HEADLEE: Well, let me ask you, Trevor, about Marvin Gaye's comments there to the BBC, as well, because he also says if someone took my album and put it to a symphony, it would be quite interesting. Do you think that's him saying that it needs a second look, or that there's something missing?

LAWRENCE: No. I don't think he was saying that. I think he was just referring to it as real passionate music that could be orchestrated, that could be done with an orchestra, or an orchestra could express the power in the music.

HEADLEE: So, Cameron, in a way, although the score stands alone and is enjoyable simply as an album, in a way, part of the beauty of this score is imagining what might have been, for not the tragic end of Marvin Gaye's life.

CROWE: Yeah. It's also a period where there has not - there's not been a lot written about what was going on in this time. And what was funny was our cinematographer on "Vanilla Sky" and "Almost Famous" said to me one day, you know, I knew Marvin Gaye. I said what? How did you know Marvin? He said, well, Marvin just finished doing "What's Going On?", got on a plane from Detroit, came out to L.A. to be an actor, and he was signed to play a green beret in this movie "Chrome and Hot Leather."

And so he's out here in Sylmar, California, having just finished - mostly finished "What's Going On?" - and the director didn't talk to him, couldn't get anything back from the director. He's trying to be an actor. Marvin's out here in California. It's not working.

So, what he did, which is brilliant, he gravitated towards the cameramen, and he ended up spending time on the camera truck learning the craft of the movie through the men who were shooting it. And that is how you really discover the beating heart of a movie. And Marvin sat on this truck with the camera guys, and they talked about sports. They talked about the movie. And the studied how the movie was actually made, because he wasn't getting to be the actor that he wanted to be because the director wasn't paying attention to him.

What happened was he took, I think, this experience into the studio when you guys did "Trouble Man," because it was very confident movie music. He knew what makes a movie beat and thump and work, and you can feel it in his music. And it was made in this period of time where he was in between the masterpieces of his life, and this is another one.

HEADLEE: Cameron Crowe, a writer and film director. He also contributed to the liner notes for the "Trouble Man" album, the rerelease. And Trevor Lawrence is a saxophonist and music producer. He worked with Marvin Gaye on the "Trouble Man" project. The 40th anniversary expanded edition of the "Trouble Man" album is available now. Cameron and Trevor both joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Thank you both so much.

CROWE: Thanks.



HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Merry Christmas. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.