The Real Story Behind 'Dreamgirls' Dreamgirls, which won three Golden Globe awards Sunday night, draws its story from Detroit's legendary Motown record label. But for a writer and musician who grew up in Detroit during the 1960s, the film gets the story wrong.
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The Real Story Behind 'Dreamgirls'

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The Real Story Behind 'Dreamgirls'

The Real Story Behind 'Dreamgirls'

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The big winner at last night's Golden Globe Awards, the musical "Dreamgirls." Three categories it won, including Best Comedy or Musical. Our resident musician David Was offers his personal assessment of the movie. Now this is based on a stage musical inspired by Detroit's hit factory, Motown Records.

DAVID WAS: As a Detroit native who grew up in the halcyon years of Motown Records, it was with an abiding skepticism that I went to see "Dreamgirls."

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Dream...

WAS: Usually, the praise heaped on dubious films by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association - that gaggle of wall-eyed European glad hander - is reason enough to stay home and watch a basketball game. But I was admittedly taken in by the hype.

Nineteen dollars later, armed with popcorn and a nice big soda pop, I dug in and hoped for the best - and was quickly let down with a thud.

(Soundbite of movie, "Dreamgirls")

Ms. ANIKA NINA ROSE (Actress): (As Lorelle Robinson) You got the same wig I got?

Ms. JENNIFER HUDSON (Actress): (As Effie White) Yeah.

Ms. ROSE: (As Lorelle Robinson) You got the same dress I got?

Ms. HUDSON: (As Effie White) Yeah.

Ms. ROSE: (As Lorelle Robinson) Then shut up.

WAS: Even if the story of The Supremes and Perry Gordy was but a jumping off point for the musical, the parade of razor-thin stereotypes that stood in for those iconic figures was not only inaccurate, but reductive to the point of absurdity and - dare I say it - racism.

(Soundbite of movie, "Dreamgirls")

Unidentified Man #1: I'm hanging man.

Unidentified Man #2: You done did it again.

Unidentified Man #3: Man, they say something is going on, (unintelligible)

WAS: Like "Brokeback Mountain" before it, "Dreamgirls" has cowed the critics into unbridled praise for fear of offending a minority community way overdue for its moment in the sun. And while I'm glad movies like "Ray" and "Dreamgirls" offer work to black actors, I'm reminded of the first wave of black exploitation flicks like "The Mac" and "Shaft," which, when the credits rolled, would reveal white screenwriters and producers anxious to milk a few bucks from the black community.

(Soundbite of song, "Stop in the Name of Love")

The SUPREMES (Singing Group): (Singing) Stop in the name of love...

WAS: "Dreamgirls" may never have been a Broadway success had it not cleaned up the messy details of the real Supremes - one of whose singers, Florence Ballard, died drunk, broke and forgotten at the age of 32.

(Soundbite of movie, "Dreamgirls")

Ms. HUDSON: (As Effie White)(Singing) No, no, no, no way I'm living without you. I'm not...

WAS: Jennifer Hudson's over-singing turn of Effie would have been far less enamored by the foreign press had she died in the gutter by end of act two. And Jamie Foxx's Berry Gordy - with its mere hints of the sinister - would have had more snap had we seen that Gordy was a smalltime pimp as well as a black Horacio Alger with an inspired business plan.

But the worst affront to a native Detroiter is how the subtleties of Motown songwriting are steamrolled by the overt Broadway sensibilities of the musical's composers with their back rope belting and bombast.

(Soundbite of song, "My Girl")

WAS: By contrast, Motown's Holland-Dozier-Holland and Smokey Robinson were the Gershwins and Cole Porters of their day, using jazz instrumentation and harmonic sophistication in the service of a more poetic R&B than its immediate forebears. I sing 20 Motown hooks without breaking a sweat, but can't remember one song I heard in "Dreamgirls" two weeks later. I'd call it Foetown, not Motown.

CHADWICK: David Was is half of the musical duo, Was (Not Was).

(Soundbite of song, "Ain't too Proud to Beg")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I have got a love so deep in the pit of my heart. Every day it grows more and more. I've got a strange...

CHADWICK: Okay, David, you didn't like it. But one of last night's Golden Globe winners from "Dreamgirls," Jennifer Hudson, shows us something called melisma. It's a show-stopping musical technique fully explained at our Web site,

(Soundbite of song, "Ain't too Proud to Beg")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Ain't too proud to plead baby, baby. Please don't leave, don't leave me (unintelligible). Baby, baby, baby...

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News, with contributions from I'm Alex Chadwick.

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