40 Years Since Marvin Gaye's Forgotten Classic

In 1972, Motown legend Marvin Gaye composed the soundtrack for the film, Trouble Man. Many critics say it was one of his finest musical achievements. To mark the film's 40th anniversary, Universal Music is releasing a special edition. Guest host Celeste Headlee speaks with saxophonist Trevor Lawrence and director Cameron Crowe.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Forty years ago, "Trouble Man" debuted in movie theaters. It starred Robert Hooks as a tough guy hustler named Mr. T - not the one from the TV show "The A-Team." Mr. T in this film, makes his living sticking out his neck to help those who can, well, pay him and those who just need his expertise to discreetly solve their problems.

The film fell well short of blockbuster status. It was even included on one critic's list of the 50 worst films of all time. But it did leave quite a legacy in at least one aspect, the music. That's because the filmmakers made an inspired choice to hire Motown legend Marvin Gaye to write the score.

So in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the film, Universal Music is rereleasing a special edition of the soundtrack. Here to talk to us about that, saxophonist and music producer, Trevor Lawrence. His work is heavily featured on the soundtrack. And also with us, director Cameron Crowe. You probably remember his films "Jerry Maguire" and "Vanilla Sky," among many others. He contributed to the liner notes for this album.

Thanks to both of you for joining us.

TREVOR LAWRENCE: It is a pleasure.

CAMERON CROWE: Good to be here.

HEADLEE: Let's begin appropriately with a taste of some of this music. I want to play the main theme here so people can kind of get a feel for the musical styling here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TROUBLE MAN")

MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) I come up hard, baby, but now I'm cool. I didn't make it, sugar, playing by the rules. I come up hard, baby, but now I'm fine. I'm shaking trouble, sugar, moving down the line. I come up hard, baby, but that's OK 'cause trouble man don't get in my way.

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?

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TROUBLE MAN")

GAYE: (Singing) This I know, sugar. Yeah. Ain't going to let it sweat you, babe.

LAWRENCE: There were a couple 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.

CROWE: Yeah.

LAWRENCE: And on the album itself, it's - I say like opera because it sort of describes the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TROUBLE MAN")

GAYE: (Singing) Come up hard, baby. I had to fight. Took care of my business with all my might. I come up hard.

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?

CROWE: Well, this piece of music and the stuff that Trevor worked on with Marvin Gaye - it is really a lost masterpiece link. Marvin has just come from making "What's Going On" in Detroit. He's re-established 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. No. What people do is they, they create the cues in a small way and then a orchestra will orchestrate it. And Marvin was hands on to everything.

CROWE: Wow.

LAWRENCE: When I started - the first session that I did with Marvin was for the opening song on the album. And those were all live music. You know, remember, when Marvin did this synthesizers were just coming around. That music was really handwritten music.

CROWE: Trevor what did...

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

CROWE: Yeah.

LAWRENCE: Well, yeah, but he, that Moog, the Mini Moog was the first synthesizer. It was the Mini Moog. 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 say oh, wait a minute, you know, I play that. And he said nah, you know.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "T PLAYS IT COOL")

LAWRENCE: So he actually had that Mini Moog and played that - those things were overdubbed. You know, everything else was live.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "T PLAYS IT COOL")

HEADLEE: And so Trevor Lawrence, that is actually you. That's you playing the tenor sax there.

LAWRENCE: Yeah that's - Yes. And if you listen to it closely now, what you'll notice is that it's a loop. The drum - 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 the two track tape machine, and they made that pattern that made a loop like a figure eight around the tip - rim, which I'd never seen before.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "T PLAYS IT COOL")

LAWRENCE: Actually, the way that we did these, my playing, there was nothing written. What he did is, I'd be in the rooms and he'd - I'd have my headphones on - and he'd say hey man, and he'd sing, he'd 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?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "T PLAYS IT COOL")

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 re-release 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 the stuff just disappears. It goes out the back door or it gets recorded over or destroyed. The fact that all this stuff was just kind of reassembled and curated so we can hear the great score that - that 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 in this song 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "T AT THE CROSS")

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, 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 a movie lives in the composition and the score, and this is just masterful score work.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "T AT THE CROSS")

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

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "T AT THE CROSS")

HEADLEE: For those people who aren't aware of the process, I mean obviously this is something you're hyper aware of...

CROWE: Yeah.

HEADLEE: ...but and it's something you talk about in the liner notes.

CROWE: Yeah.

HEADLEE: 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 songs you'd say oh, that would be great to hear that in a movie. That music is already its own movie. It's so powerful it doesn't need 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 marriages 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, like getting vectored into R&B and those great duets with Tammy 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 back. 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.

LAWRENCE: Mm-hmm.

CROWE: He got there.

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

GAYE: The "Trouble Man" film score was one of my loveliest projects and one of the great sleepers of all our time. I'll probably be dead and gone before I get the probable acclaim from the "Trouble Man" album, musical track, that I feel I should get. And put to a symphony, if someone took my album and did a symphony on it, I think it would be quite interesting.

HEADLEE: It's kind of a...

CROWE: It's an amazing recording.

HEADLEE: ...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 Martin 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 that 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 an imagining what might have been...

CROWE: Mm-hmm.

HEADLEE: ...for not, the tragic end of Marvin Gaye's life.

CROWE: Yeah. It's also a period where there's not been a lot written about what was going on in this time. And what was funny is our cinematographer on "Vanilla Sky" and "Almost Famous" said to me one day, you know, I knew Marvin Gaye. I said what? So how did you know Marvin? And he said well, Marvin just finished doing "What's Going On," got on a plane from Detroit, came out to LA to be an actor and he was signed to play a Green Beret in this movie "Chrome & Hot Leather." And so he's out here in Sylmar, California having just finished - mostly finish - "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 was 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.

LAWRENCE: Wow.

CROWE: And that is how you really discover the beating heart of a movie. And Marvin sat on this truck with the camera guys, they talked about sports. They talked about the movie, and he 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's a very confident movie music. He knew what makes a movie beat and thump and work and you can feel it in this 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, writer and film director. He also contributed to the liner notes for the "Trouble Man" album, the re-release. 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.

LAWRENCE: Great.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "TROUBLE MAN")

HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'll talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "TROUBLE MAN")

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