Berry Gordy with the Supremes. The film Dreamgirls attempts to depict the rise of this phenomenal female group from Detroit during the 1960s.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire Photo File.
Dreamgirls behind the curtain: Movie set in Detroit blends truth with fiction
Susan Whitall / The Detroit News
Detroit, get ready for your close-up.
The movie "Dreamgirls," opening Monday, is set in Detroit and is much closer to the real story of the Supremes and Motown than the 1981 Broadway musical of the same name.
Directed by "Chicago" director Bill Condon, "Dreamgirls" tells the story of three teens from the Motor City who hit it big recording for a local record company. Rainbow Records creates a blend of pop and R&B music that crosses over to white audiences.
The film's backstory echoes the rise of Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard of the Supremes; their meeting with mentor/boss Berry Gordy Jr.; and their success at Motown Records, with 12 No. 1 hits in five years.
When "Dreamgirls" opened on Broadway in December 1981, it was set in Chicago and attempts were made to distance it from the "real" Dreamgirls' story. Because the movie now parallels Motown's story more closely, the 10 percent that is made up of myths and half-truths may soon be considered historic fact.
But what is real, and what is Hollywood (by way of Broadway) fiction?
Detroit is in spotlight
From the opening scene of the movie, you're either at the Detroit Theater, at the Detroit Hotel or at a car lot selling Detroit-made cars. A neon sign proclaiming "Ford" peeks out on the banks of the Detroit River.
Detroit's 1967 riots and the post-riot bleakness of the city is all there on screen, alongside the glitter, sequins and feathers of Rainbow Records, the scrappy independent label started by a Gordy-like businessman Curtis Taylor Jr., played by Jamie Foxx.
Real-life dreamgirl Wilson -- the pretty Supreme in the middle, the one Gordy opined was "most popular with the guys" -- said last week from her home in Las Vegas that she's happy Condon set "Dreamgirls" in the frenetic social context of the '60s.
"It's a great film, very beautiful and true to the musical," said Wilson, 62. "It brings out a lot of good information that young artists today, young people need to hear and see. They've kind of forgotten what a struggle it was for us."
In the movie, as dramatized in the song "Step on to the Bad Side," a disgusted Taylor realizes he has to bribe disc jockeys.
"It brought it up very clearly the payola, and how many of the black artists were not able to benefit from their records," Wilson said.
And yet disc jockeys who admitted taking payola concede that it wasn't enough to ensure a hit, as "Dreamgirls" implies.
The movie "Dreamgirls" features Effie, based on Ballard, and Deena, who is the Ross figure, competing for Taylor. However, Ross and Ballard did not vie for Gordy's affections. Ross and Gordy were involved romantically; Gordy fathered Ross' oldest daughter, Rhonda.
Tension within the group in "Dreamgirls" escalates when Effie gains weight, is late and displays a diva attitude. Eventually she is tossed from the group.
The turmoil within the Supremes kicked in when Gordy changed the billing of the group to "Diana Ross and the Supremes" in 1967. Ballard took it the hardest, and according to Wilson, started to drink and show up late to rehearsals, until she was fired and replaced by Cindy Birdsong. A brief solo career tanked and she ended up in Detroit on welfare with three young daughters. The singer died in 1976 of a heart attack at age 32.
But Detroit City Councilwoman Martha Reeves, of Martha and the Vandellas, doesn't recognize Rainbow Records founder Taylor, who is a total scoundrel in the film, as her boss at Motown.
"He was not my Berry Gordy," Reeves said.
How lead singer was picked
Probably the most controversial "Dreamgirls" plot point, the dramatic arc of the entire film, is that the Dreams' lead singer should have been Effie, and that the lead singer Deena got the slot because the boss thought she was cute. It's an enduring legend, that Ballard was pushed aside for Ross as lead singer. The truth is much more complex.
Ballard had the heaviest, most gospel-inflected voice of the Supremes, adept more for R&B than pop. Ross had a sparkly, effervescent tone that was instantly recognizable.
While Ballard was good, was she an Etta James or an Aretha Franklin? When the character Effie stops the show with the song "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," there is no doubt she's the superstar.
Record boss Taylor yells at Deena that the only reason he made her lead singer of the Dreams is because her voice had no personality.
"I don't think that was ever an issue," said Reeves, 65. "Both of them had good voices, and you can't deny, with all the parts that (Flo) sang on, that she didn't have the ability. But Flo didn't have the stage personality. So Berry used the one who could step up and step out."
Tom Adrahtas, author of a Ross biography, "Diana Ross: The American Dream Girl" (Author House), says in a recent L.A. Weekly: "If Florence Ballard had been the lead singer of the Supremes, they'd be one of those girl groups you remember,
but not a breakout group."
Ross' ambition was key to the Supremes' success. As Gordy relates in his book "To Be Loved" (Warner Books), he told Wilson and Ballard to cut Ross slack for being a "show-off," because her showing off is what drove the Supremes to the top.
Gordy did like to pit his singers against each other; one of his favorite sayings was "Competition makes champions." As he wrote in "To Be Loved," Wilson's personality, sex appeal and "good" voice kept Ross on her toes.
The Motown founder also appreciated Ballard's wit, sarcasm and deadpan humor, which actress Jennifer Hudson as Effie shows off. In the movie, Effie also puts on weight and skips rehearsals. In real life, Gordy attributed Ballard's erratic behavior to drinking.
Playing Deena, Beyonce Knowles is undeniably gorgeous. It has been reported that she lost 20 pounds to look more like the slim Ross.
And some of the film's images are direct copies of iconic Motown photos. In the scenes in Taylor's L.A. office, a blown-up photograph of Knowles with a billowing Afro echoes a familiar image of a doe-eyed Ross with the same 'fro.
But Knowles' modern, aggressive performing style has been so tamped down to fit more ladylike girl group moves that you don't get a sense of Ross' seething ambition and energy.
Ross didn't like musical
As a whole, Wilson feels that the film, unlike the musical, pays homage to the Supremes.
"Bill Condon was very gracious in doing that. It's good because it lets the public see where the credit should be, while letting the newer artists shine."
When "Dreamgirls" opened on Broadway, Ross was famously displeased. But the film shows Ross in a more flattering light. Although Hudson stops the show with "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," Knowles has star billing in the film and proves her boss wrong about her voice, when she breaks out with the defiant song "Listen."
Ross maintained an icy silence about the original Broadway production but seems more accepting of the film.
"I know that they've got good people involved," Ross told the TV show "Extra" last week. "There's Beyonce, and the names are all good. My fingers are crossed that they're saying good things, and that it's true." A sunny afterglow from "Dreamgirls" might not be bad for new albums coming out from both Ross and Wilson.
Usually cinematic reality is far more vivid than real life, but the irony here may be that the dresses the Supremes actually wore were far more glamorous and dramatic.
"Those dresses of Mary Wilson's were on view right here at the Detroit Historical Museum," said Reeves.
"The dresses in 'Dreamgirls' were very good, but nothing like the real Supremes dresses. They could have shown the real glamour of Motown."
You can reach Susan Whitall at (313) 222-2156 or email@example.com.
Who's who in 'Dreamgirls'
Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles). If she wasn't playing a Diana Ross clone, why is Knowles starved down to a shadow of her bootylicious self? Even her name, "Deena," looks like "Diana."
Effie Melody White (Jennifer Hudson). Like Florence Ballard, Effie is more voluptuous than her Dreams co-stars. Anyone who saw the Mary Wilson Supremes dress exhibit at the Detroit Historical Museum knows Ballard was a '60s-era size 10, which is probably akin to a size 6 or 8 today.
Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose). The third Dream, Lorrell has an affair with the married James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy) character. The real Motown was a fast-paced, exciting place with dozens of young people thrown together. There were definitely a lot of overt and covert romances going on.
Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx). Loosely based on Berry Gordy Jr., although Taylor is a more prosperous businessman at the outset of the story (he owns a car dealership). When Gordy started Motown, he was a struggling songwriter who couldn't get paid for his Jackie Wilson compositions.
James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy). In the early scenes, Murphy's character is sort of an amalgam of James Brown and Wilson Pickett, with a Brownian process 'do. Taylor convinces Early to do a smoother song for his new label that jump-starts Early's career. But then part of Marvin Gaye's life story is tacked on when Early secretly records a socially-conscious new album (just as Gaye did with "What's Going On") and springs it on his label boss, who refuses to release it.
Motown missed its chance to cash in on 'Dreamgirls'
In New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, the movie
"Dreamgirls" is six days into its exclusive opening run, breaking box office records and injecting Oscar buzz into the holiday season.
The movie is pure fiction, but its roots cling to Detroit. Anyone who has seen "Dreamgirls," the musical, recognizes at least the bare bones of the Supremes' trajectory from urban housing project to super-girl group.
You could argue that Motown -- with its enduring appeal and international recognition -- may just be Detroit's most undervalued commodity.
And the charming Motown Historical Museum, which is both instructive and evocative, may be our most underappreciated museum.
Now "Dreamgirls" -- which seems to play off the Supremes' tale of a rags-to-riches girls' group -- is creating buzz in three great American cities on two coasts. The studio's three-city "road tour" is designed to hype the movie nationally with limited release, souvenir merchandise and $25 tickets.
"We could have made it our movie," says Janet Lockwood, who heads the Michigan Film Office. "Instead we're a day late and a dollar short."
Incentive comes late
We're late because the state Legislature approved an incentive package for film production just last week that will rebate some production costs to filmmakers who choose to shoot movies in Michigan.
The move came after years of non-action -- and after the Film Office reported in October that 2006 was its slowest year for Michigan filmmaking in Lockwood's long tenure.
Lockwood argues that the movie's director would have shot more scenes here, creating a perfect launch pad for "Dreamgirls" -- if only the Legislature had acted sooner.
Motown Historical Museum's CEO Robin Terry -- who expects to see attendance boosts from "Dreamgirls" buzz -- sees only minimal connection between the movie and museum.
"It's not a Motown (studios) production," says Terry. "But could we have raised money with a screening? Will it have an effect here? Probably."
And even Cadillac, an official "Dreamgirls" partner, got into the act with a contest whisking off winners to Hollywood.
An opportunity goes by
So "Dreamgirls" will open in Detroit on Christmas Day, 10 days after opening in San Francisco, where not a single scene was shot. Although the story has always been recognized as "suggested by events in the career of the Supremes" (Steven Suskin, theater historian) or "clearly inspired by the Supremes," (Doughlas Watt, New York Daily News, 1981), the local spin is that "Dreamgirls" is a Hollywood movie, pure and simple.
But in Philadelphia, Sly Stallone is running up and down steps again for "Rocky Balboa," and flashbulbs are popping. "Dreamgirls" isn't a Motown moment here, because there's no clear link -- just a shimmery, high-budget legend that other cities are capitalizing on.
You can reach Laura Berman at (248) 647-7221 or firstname.lastname@example.org.