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A soul musical, without the soul

Girl-group biopic Dreamgirls is a decent movie, but it fails to capture the drama and energy of Sixties Detroit.

Niall Crowley

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Over the last three decades the musical that reputedly featured ‘the greatest performance in Broadway history’ (1) had been largely forgotten. The New York show launched in 1981, finished for good after four years and was never staged in Europe. But Bill Condon, screenwriter for the Oscar-winning musical Chicago and director of the much acclaimed Gods and Monsters, had been in the audience on the opening night of Dreamgirls 26 years ago and was a longtime fan of The Supremes. It was almost inevitable he’d eventually turn his attention to this forgotten musical.

The film itself tells the story of three girls from Detroit in the early 60s who form singing trio The Dreamettes and enter a local talent contest. They don’t win but are spotted by smooth-but-slippery music manager Curtis Taylor Jr (Jamie Foxx) who invites them to sing backup for ageing R’n’B singer James ‘Thunder’ Early (Eddie Murphy). With the explosive vocal talent of lead singer Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) and songs penned by her brother Clarence (Keith Robinson), the girls soon outshine the main act.

As success comes, their increasingly ruthless manager becomes convinced the group has enormous potential to ‘crossover’ to a mainstream white audience – if only they had a slimmer, prettier but blander and less ‘black’ girl upfront. Thus Effie, the group’s real talent and Taylor’s lover, is forced to the sidelines in favour of a waifish lightweight played (aptly) by Beyoncé Knowles. Effie is unable to reconcile herself with a backseat role and is eventually kicked out of the band, when everyone, including her lover and her brother, side against her. The remainder of the film explores the lives and careers of the girls over the following two decades.

It’s a tragic tale of near operatic proportions (or a hackneyed cliché-driven plot according to the Guardian), though mild compared to The Supremes’ true-life story. In the early days of the group, all three members – Florence Ballard, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson – took turns at lead vocals. By 1963, Motown boss Berry Gordy decided that in order to broaden their appeal, Ross (his lover) should permanently take over as lead vocalist. This was an enormous blow for Ballard, who developed a drink problem, suffered from depression and was eventually kicked out of the band. Her solo career failed. By the early 70s, her home was repossessed and she ended up on welfare. She died in 1976 aged 32.

The idea that Florence Ballard was the better singer and was pushed aside by Motown in favour of less talented but ruthlessly ambitious Diana Ross, is an old one and has been widely reproduced in other reviews of Dreamgirls. But even the most knowledgeable soul fan (and there are many) would have trouble naming any memorable performance by Ballard, both during and after her Supremes career. And anyway, what kind of fool wouldn’t put Diana Ross upfront? She had one of the sweetest and most distinctive voices in popular music history, and she looked like a goddess. If her behaviour was tempestuous, then the same can be said of virtually every other pop star there ever was.

The character of Effie White owes more to Jennifer Holliday than Florence Ballard. When Holliday took on the role in 1981 she consciously moulded Effie in her own image – that of an exceptional young singer who was struggling with a weight problem. She also altered important elements of Effie’s story, all of which made it into the film, and none of which I will divulge (2).

The film differs from the stage production in a number of ways. Where the Broadway show was more of an ‘escapist’ musical, the film attempts to add drama and flesh out the characters. Condon has reduced the sung dialogue, and brought more realism to the story by reference to the riots and civil unrest of the 1960s. The ‘social context’ is used largely as a backdrop to give the film some grit, but there’s no real sense of a connection between the civil unrest and the main story, or indeed the music.

In reality the struggle for equality is the key to understanding the burst of creative energy in black American music in the 1960s but not in a very obvious way.

Motown’s desire to ‘crossover’ and sell records to a mainstream white audience is often criticised as ‘selling out’ as compared to other record companies making more ‘authentic’ or more ‘black’ music such as Stax in Memphis. Today, cultural critics often interpret the Detroit company’s slogan ‘The Sound of Young America’ as a kind of denial of identity because it didn’t read ‘The Sound of Black America’.

Motown’s approach embodied the aspirations of a generation of young blacks whose parents had move en masse from the Deep South to the booming industrial cities of the Midwest. These children of poor black farm workers and cotton pickers grew up in the city and couldn’t relate to the downtrodden existence of their parents, or their Blues music, with it’s downbeat message of resignation. This ‘inspired’ generation was uninterested in its past or ‘roots’ – a difficult concept to grasp in a period when we are so consumed by identity politics. At the time, young black Americans had broader, more cosmopolitan ambitions; they wanted to be equal (rather than ‘different’), and given the same opportunities everybody else, not kept in the ghetto with their ethnic ‘race music’.

Many black performers wanted to be taken seriously in the mainstream and longed to perform at established venues such as the Copacabana in New York, home to the country’s biggest entertainers (even Sammy Davis Jr’s first appearance at the Copacabana sparked a violent racist reaction). Marvin Gaye wanted to be a Frank Sinatra figure, rather than a soul singer who appealed to a largely black audience. In Dreamgirls, Eddie Murphy’s character grows so tired of singing MOR ballads for fickle white record buyers, he commits career suicide when he breaks out into a funky R’n’B number in front of a shocked Caucasian audience. It’s an act that flies in the face of what was going on at the time and says more about today’s cultural preoccupations than it does about the reality of 1960s black America.

The film however is largely enjoyable, though it often hovers, unsuccessfully, between musical and drama. Sometimes you forget you’re watching a musical and it starts to seem a bit silly – characters don’t burst into song in ‘serious’ films. In general the snippets of sung dialogue in the film work better and are more emotive than most of the songs. The song ‘Dreamgirls’, the fictional group’s big hit, isn’t up to Motown standards and doesn’t sound vaguely of the 1960s. The period look and feel of the film is convincing, stunning even, but the music is a mush of showtunes, late 70s smooth soul and contemporary-R&B-does-Aretha-Franklin.

Where the film really works is on the occasions it succeeds in fusing music and drama to capture the pathos of the story. A crucial scene is where Effie White learns she’s being fired from the band, and an almighty row ensues between her and the rest of the cast. They flit between spoken and sung dialogue as the tension rises. At the scene’s finale Effie breaks out into a storming ballad ‘And I’m telling you (I’m not going)’. Slate magazine called it ‘the greatest song ever filmed’ (3) and it’s the main reason why Jennifer Hudson received an Oscar nomination – not bad for someone who was told by Simon Cowell ‘she’d never be good enough’ (4) – even if her performance is essentially a copy of Holliday’s original.

As a piece of escapism in the classic musical tradition it really works, and you can’t help feeling it might have been a better film if they’d stayed truer to the stage version, lacking the emotional power of the stage version – something you can gauge for yourself. At the 1982 Tony awards the original cast re-enacted the final scene of act one (where Effie is kicked out of the group) and there’s an eight-minute snippet on YouTube (5). The film quality isn’t great and the acting is a bit ‘theatrical’ but it features a performance from 21 year-old Jennifer Holliday and the rest of the cast that the film, despite its Oscar nominations, never quite matches.

(1) MTV podcast 2007 ‘The curse of Effie White’, available at YouTube.

(2) Taken from a US radio interview with Jennifer Holliday December 2006

(3) The greatest song ever filmed, Slate, 21 December 2006

(4) Jennifer Hudson is shocked by her success, MSNBC, 14 December 2006

(5) Jennifer Holliday, ‘And I Am Telling You’, YouTube

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