Does 'Dreamgirls' Offer Lowdown on Motown? The movie, nominated for eight Oscars, is a thinly veiled account of Berry Gordy's empire and his banner group, the Supremes. But many Motown stars say the film doesn't reflect the real story.
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Does 'Dreamgirls' Offer Lowdown on Motown?

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Does 'Dreamgirls' Offer Lowdown on Motown?

Does 'Dreamgirls' Offer Lowdown on Motown?

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REN, 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)

JENNIFER HUDSON: (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: (Soundbite of song, "Mr. Postman")

DREAMS: (Singing) Stop! Oh, yes, wait a minute, Mr. Postman.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED")

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")

FOUR TOPS: (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: (Singing) Now you've put a smile on my face...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY LOVE")

THE SUPREMES: 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.

HUDSON: 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.

HUDSON: (As Effie White) What do you mean? I always sing lead. Tell her C.C.

KEITH ROBINSON: (As C.C. White) We'll try something new, Effie.

HUDSON: (As Effie White) You knew about this?

ROBINSON AND THE MIRACLES: (As C.C. White) Curtis and I talked it over. He said it's only temporary.

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.

MARY WILSON: 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.

EDDIE HOLLAND: 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.

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")

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."

GERALD EARLY: 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)

DIANA ROSS: (Singing) Whenever you're near, I hear a symphony, a tender melody, pulling me closer, closer to your arms...

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: Singer and songwriter Smokey Robinson was one of Motown's pioneers.

ROBINSON AND THE MIRACLES: 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.

ROBINSON AND THE MIRACLES: 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.

ROBINSON AND THE MIRACLES: 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: (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.

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