During the 1980s, media images of white boomer nostalgia were often accompanied by 1960s Motown songs due to the popularity of the hit film The Big Chill as well as advertising and licensing strategies inspired by it. In previous decades, however, Motown was used to dramatize onscreen representations of Black male film characters’ emotional experiences of aspiration and resilience. This article explores how 1960s Motown songs came to be employed in two motion pictures—Nothing But a Man and Cooley High—to represent particular notions of everyday Black life, and then provides an industrial backdrop for why such cinematic uses of Motown came to effectively be replaced by invocations of white nostalgia.

By analyzing the uses of Motown music within film narratives and the industrial conditions through which such licensing took place, this study goes beyond the formal analysis of film music in order to demonstrate how the act of licensing popular songs for film participates in the making of songs’ social, cultural, and political meanings. In so doing, this article shows how the material conditions of licensing music for film shape what and whose experiences of popular music are able to be represented onscreen.

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