RENÉE MONTAGNE, host:
"Dreamgirls," the movie starring Beyonce Knowles, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, and Jennifer Hudson has been nominated for eight Oscars, including best original song.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. JENNIFER HUDSON (Actress; Singer): (singing) I met a man, quite like you.
MONTAGNE: The movie tells the story of the rise of a small black record label and the ups and downs of its star girl group - the Dreams. The plot of "Dreamgirls" draws quite a bit from the story of Motown records and The Supremes. But how much of the saga of show biz betrayal is real and how much is fictional? NPR's Elizabeth Blair tries to sort it all out.
ELIZABETH BLAIR: How could you even begin to tell the story?
(Soundbite of song, "Mr. Postman")
The DREAMS (Vocal group): (Singing) Stop! Oh, yes, wait a minute, Mr. Postman.
(Soundbite of song, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered")
The DREAMS: (Singing) …signed, sealed, delivered - I'm yours.
BLAIR: In 1960s Detroit, Motown Records created a distinctive sound that blended tightly-produced pop with a heavy dose of soul. It ushered in a new era in American popular music with acts that appealed to both black and white audiences.
(Soundbite of song, "Baby I Need Your Loving")
The FOUR TOPS (Vocal group): (Singing) Baby, I need your loving, got to have all your loving…
(Soundbite of song, "ABC" by The Jackson 5)
(Soundbite of song, "Tears of A Clown")
SMOKEY ROBINSON AND THE MIRACLES (Vocal group): (Singing) Now you've put a smile on my face…
(Soundbite of song, "Baby Love")
THE SUPREMES (Vocal group): Baby love, my baby love…
BLAIR: One of Motown's most successful groups was The Supremes - a trio of glamorous, beautifully dressed, young women. So how much of "Dreamgirls" is based on their story. Jennifer Hudson, who plays Effie White in the movie, won a golden globe for her performance. Accepting her award last week, she paid this tribute to one of the Supremes original members.
Ms. JENNIFER HUDSON (Actress, singer): I just want to dedicate this award to a lady who never really got a fair chance. This award is for Florence Ballard. You will never be forgotten. Thank you.
BLAIR: Many believe Florence Ballard is the prototype for the character Effie in "Dreamgirls." Effie is the lead singer of the Dreams, who gets replaced by the thinner and prettier Deena, who bears a close resemblance to Diana Ross in clothes, make-up and accessories.
Ms. HUDSON (Actress): (As Effie White) What do you mean? I always sing lead. Tell her C.C.
Mr. KEITH ROBINSON (Actor): (As C.C. White) We'll try something new, Effie.
Ms. HUDSON: (As Effie White) You knew about this?
Mr. ROBINSON: (As C.C. White) Curtis and I talked it over. He said it's only temporary.
Ms. HUDSON: (As Effie White) We finally get the chance to have our own act and Deena's doing lead? She can't sing like I can.
BLAIR: So did the scene like this really happen? Mary Wilson, one of the other original Supremes, grew up in a Detroit projects with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard.
Ms. MARY WILSON (Singer, The Supremes): She had a tremendous talent and she was one of my best friends. Like the film, she was sort of overlooked within the group in terms of being the main singer. So therefore her talents were never really, really used.
BLAIR: Eddie Holland disagrees.
Mr. EDDIE HOLLAND (Songwriter and Producer): Florence was never a lead singer per se.
BLAIR: Holland and his brother, Brian, along Lamont Dozier, wrote most of The Supremes' biggest hits for Motown. He says Florence Ballard wasn't pushed out of a lead singer role.
Mr. HOLLAND: Brian and Lamont and I knew that Diana Ross would be the lead singer. Diana's voice is extremely unique and very sensuous and that had a lot of - to do with the success of those records.
BLAIR: Barry Gordy did use Florence Ballard as lead singer on a song he wrote in the early days of The Supremes called "Buttered Popcorn."
(Soundbite of song "Buttered Popcorn")
THE SUPREMES: (Singing) My baby liked buttered popcorn. Uh huh. Buttered popcorn. Come on, who, who? Buttered popcorn. Oh, yeah. Buttered popcorn. Oh, it's greasy.
BLAIR: But as this song shows, Ballard might not have had the right quality to help The Supremes crossover to a white audience. Gerald Early wrote a book about Motown called, "One Nation Under a Groove."
Mr. GERALD EARLY (Author, "One Nation Under A Groove"): She had a much more soul-kind of voice than Diana Ross. That kind of material The Supremes were singing - that voice was not necessarily best suited for that kind of material.
BLAIR: Eddie Holland claims that Gordy never told them what to write or which singers to use. But Gordy did eventually change the group's name to Diana Ross & The Supremes - paving way for Ross's later solo career.
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. DIANA ROSS (Singer): (Singing) Whenever you're near, I hear a symphony, a tender melody, pulling me closer, closer to your arms…
Eddie Holland and Mary Wilson may disagree on what happened with Florence Ballard's role in The Supremes. In any case, Ballard left the group in 1967. Mary Wilson:
Ms. WILSON: She ran into some personal difficulties, which actually made her lose her position as a Supreme, and after that her life went downhill.
BLAIR: Florence Ballard tried for solo career but never made it. She went on welfare and suffered from depression and alcoholism. She died in 1976 at age 32. The music business, as Gerald Early puts it, is not for the faint of heart. And to make Motown a successful as it was, Barry Gordy Jr. could not have been a saint. In fact, many of the label's own artists had legal battles with the company at one time or another. The Holland brothers spent years in litigation with Motown, and yet they want to set the records straight - that Barry Gordy Jr. was nothing like his counterpart in the movie - slick, conniving, and controlling.
Singer and songwriter Smokey Robinson was one of Motown's pioneers.
Mr. SMOKEY ROBINSON (Singer and Songwriter): I really am kind of upset about it because there's a lot of false information in there and millions of people are seeing it everyday.
BLAIR: Robinson says, in starting Motown, Gordy offered dozens of young black artists better employment.
Mr. ROBINSON: Nobody was paying us. So he borrowed $800 from his family's fund and started Motown so that we could be paid. And for him to be maligned and made out like this villainous character is very, very, very offensive to me.
BLAIR: Robinson goes so far as to say that the stars in the film have tarnished their own history.
Mr. ROBINSON: Motown is Beyonce's heritage. Motown in Jamie Foxx heritage. Motown is Eddie Murphy's heritage. You know what I mean? They're black people. They're young black people. America should be proud of Motown, because Motown made a statement all over the world that America could be proud of.
BLAIR: In the end, "Dreamgirls" is an entertainment film about entertainment. It could never be exactly right. And as Michael Bennett, who directed the original Broadway show once said, if it were the story of The Supremes, he would've been sued. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
(Soundbite of song, "Cadillac Car")
JIMMY EARLY AND THE DREAMETTES (Fictional vocal group): (Singing) Got me a Cadillac. Cadillac, Cadillac. Oh, got me a Cadillac car. Yeah, got me a Cadillac. Cadillac, Cadillac. Look at me mister I'm a star…
MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm Renée Montagne.
INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep.