Ain’t Enough Like the Real Thing

Marvin Gaye was a one-off. Seeing his life on stage leaves you too busy thinking bout the records




The life of Marvin Gaye is not without incident. One of the world’s biggest pop stars being shot by his father with a gun he gave him as a Christmas gift is hardly going to lack drama.

This desperately sad episode which begins and ends Roy Williams’ excellent play on the life of Marvin, Soul, which has just finished a run at Hackney Empire and Northampton’s Derngate theatre. Soul centres around the Gaye family unit. It is narrated by his two sisters, the central leads outside a young and older Marvin, are his parents Alberta and the Rev Marvin Gay Sr, aka “Doc” (Adjoa Andoh and Leo Wringer depict a durable but dysfunctional union with compelling performances) and narrated by his sisters Zeola and Jenna. The set revolves around home – the Gayes’ first home in Washington, the Reverend’s church and “the big house” in California bought with Gaye’s music money.

There are two challenges for Williams which, through no fault of his, the play never really resolves. The life of Marvin Gaye continued various episodic moments crying out for dramatic reconstruction. The love story with Tammi Terrell and divorce from Berry Gordy’s daughter Anna are touched on in Soul. The initial refusal of Gordy to release What’s Going On before Marvin prevailed. The disappearance of Gaye on a Southampton ferry to Ostend to spend two years boxing, walking along beaches and healing. The release and triumphant comeback of Sexual Healin. These three strands of his life are not.

Rights issues mean a brief choir interval of What’s Going On, and snatched intros of Anger and Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) and a refrain from You Are Everything feature but I Heard It Through the Grapevine, the great Tammi Terrell duets, Trouble Man, Sexual Healing and Got to Give It Up don’t.

Again, not the author’s fault.

It’s a shame but understandable. Marvin Gaye’s life was every bit as deep and unfathomable as his best work.

What is also not Williams’ fault is that the real moments of drama come from listening to Gaye sing. Nathan Ives-Moiba is a tremendous actor, utterly believable as Marvin until….you’ve guessed it. Finding a singer to match Gaye has been beyond twelve series of The X Factor, and fifteen of American Idol so not hard to see why it should be beyond producers here. (Of course we all have high hopes for Series 13 this year).

It’s why the dramatisations of Beatles (Backbeat) or Richie Valens may fly, but doing justice to Jimi Hendrix is more difficult. What film about Stevie Wonder could match the jaw-dropping moment of hearing his first note sung on Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)? Good luck escavating an actor who can play the guitar or piano like Prince for his biopic. And there’s a reason the plots of Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You were about a three-way paternity wrangle at a Greek wedding and a post-rock apocalyptic future with the Bohemians. Getting inside the heads of two Swedish songwriters divorcing 50% of their band and doing justice to the life of Freddie Mercury is trickier than an outlandish plot about a Greek wedding or love story between Galileo and Scaramouche (thank you, Ben Elton).

Roy Williams and cast do a fantastic job on Soul. The job of any drama professionals is to make your jaw drop and your hearts soar and sigh, and the play does that. But matching that moment when you hear Marvin Gaye sing The Star Spangled Banner in a school gymnasium for the first time? Napoleon Boneaparte once said “Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools” but he never tried to make a film or play about the unparalleled musical genius of Marvin Gaye.

Former editor of Smash Hits and Q, writes on music here, for the BBC Entertainment & Arts website, and others. Favourite artists include Prince, Blur, Pet Shop Boys, Leonard Cohen, The Beatles, Daft Punk, Joni Mitchell, John Grant, Velvet Underground, Stevie Wonder, The Blue Nile and too many others to mention.