Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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MARVIN GAYE: GREATEST HITS LIVE (1991)

**

With Marvin Gaye.
Directed by Charles Leeuvenhamp.
(Sony Home Video, color, 55 mins.)

By Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell

In the wake of the great lip-synching controversy, it's worth remembering that tortured, sainted Marvin Gaye always had trouble hacking it live. Sure he could outsing Milli Vanilli, but the locus of his genius was the recording studio, where he layered vocals and rhythm tracks into the polyrhythmic weave that graced his most generic early Motown hits and became the essence of his music with 1970's watershed What's Going On. Only his most worshipful fans treasure more than a handful of his live recordings. And they're the only ones who'll treasure this grandiosely titled 1976 Amsterdam concert.

To start with the positives, Marvin is looking good. No longer the lithe young miracle who wowed 1964's TAMI Show, he isn't yet the paunchy cummerbund abuser of the early '80s, either. Although he crams his '60s hits into a frustrating medley while pushing his weakest studio album, 1976's disco-targeted I Want You, most of the songs are fine. And as always, he seems genuinely delighted to put his arm around a woman, designated duet partner Florence Lyle.

But for the most part his spontaneity is wan or clumsy--insofar as these interpretations differ from the ones you know, they're worse. Gaye always fancied himself a nightclub singer, but he couldn't bring off his trademark swoops and phrasing every moment of every night. No show band could do justice to his arrangements, and the Alan Peters Orchestra doesn't have the chops to try. So unless you're crazy to see the great sex symbol doff his coat and vest and then unbutton his shirt, you can skip this one. And even if you are, n.b.: next song, he puts the coat back on again.

Video Review, Mar. 1991