Socialist Worker

Dreamgirls: a chance to film a Motown dream ruined by Hollywood

by Yuri Prasad
Issue No. 2037

Diana Ross and the Supremes

Diana Ross and the Supremes

Widely hailed in the mainstream press, this film purports to tell the story of 1960s soul sensations The Supremes.

Any account of the rise of three young working class women from Detroit who, as part of Tamla Motown records, helped smash the racial divide in popular music ought to be great viewing. But Dreamgirls is a great disappointment.

The film is a fictionalised account based on a 1980s musical. And true to the usual Hollywood and Broadway conventions, this Motown story is told by reference to good people and bad people.

The film’s “happy ending” sees the Florence “Flo” Ballard character, sacked from the Supremes in 1967, reunited with the group for a farewell concert. It is travesty of the truth – Flo died a penniless exile from Motown in 1976.

The real story of Motown and its groups is a far more interesting and complex tale.

Label boss Berry Gordy took his inspiration for Motown from the car factories of Detroit. Every aspect of the production of a song was broken down into a series of small tasks on which an individual would work. Only those at the head of the company would have an overview of each single that was for release.

The driving rhythm of Motown also derived from the factories, sometimes quite literally. Instruments in early singles by The Temptations included a chain winch, used to load car engines, being shaken to create a gritty trashing sound.

That Motown was able to make music that could cross the racial divide is often attributed solely to its groundbreaking sound. But Gordy used his marketing skills to shape his artists into what he thought would be acceptable to “white society”.

Ultimately the restrictions that Motown put on its artists hindered its creative development and created the tensions that would destroy the label.

You see the occasional glimpses of this world in the film, but they are far too fleeting to inform the viewer. Instead Dreamgirls just sells us another fantasy.


Directed by Bill Condon
Out now

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Sat 10 Feb 2007, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 2037
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