Thursday, February 22, 2007

Dreaming in the Shadows of Motown


I finally got to see “Dreamgirls” last night. And seeing how a review of that movie sort of sparked Brian’s blog, I figure I’d put down my own thoughts on the film in this comatose place.

There is something I should explain before I discuss “Dreamgirls”: If my Internet nickname hasn’t tipped you off, I am a bit of a Motown and soul music fanatic. I own countless vinyl albums and CDs of the Motown stars you’ve all heard of (the Stevies and Marvins and Gladyseses) as well as those only few people remember (The Sisters Love, Bohannon, the Dynamic Superiors etc.). I have read Nelson George’s “Where Did our Love Go – The Rise and Fall of Motown Records,” Gerri Hirshey’s “Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music,” David Nathan’s “Soulful Divas” and the biographies of Marvin Gaye, Otis Williams and Gladys Knight, among others.

So there is very little exaggeration when I say that watching “Dreamgirls” for me was a bit like the Pope watching “The Ten Commandments” with Charlton Heston. It looks and sounds real pretty, and the story I know and love is hiding somewhere in there, but lawd did they sugar-coat it and dumb it down for the masses.

OK, so Dreamgirls is an imaginary story (snicker). See, I could not type that with a straight face. At every turn, the movie tries to remind us that it’s really the story of Motown and Diana Ross and the Supremes. Motown’s motto “The Sound of Young America” becomes “The Sound of the Future” with Rainbow Records. Both the real and the imaginary™ label publish Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches on record. The Dreams’ album covers are direct copies of Supremes records (even one from after Diana’s departure!). And of course, plot points big and small were lifted directly from Motown history.

All of that made it very difficult for me to just sit back and enjoy the movie without occasionally cringing when they took what felt too many liberties with said history. I’ve already seen one movie critic claim that the Supremes sang behind Marvin Gaye early on when it was really Martha Reeves and the Vandellas who did that. It was also Martha who (though a trained singer) got into Motown as a secretary just to get her foot in the door, something that “Michelle Morris” – think ersatz-Supreme Cindy Birdsong - does in “Dreamgirls.” I guess the press kit didn’t go into too much detail as to what’s fact and what’s fiction.

I understand the concept of composite characters, but did it really help tell the movie’s story to make Eddie Murphy’s character a mix of Little Richard, James Brown, Marvin Gaye and David Ruffin? While it gave the actor a chance to show that his singing has improved quite a bit since “Party All the Time,” for me it downplayed the enormity and breadth of the history of rhythm & blues by cramping too much into one person and too few years.

Not that the soundtrack showed a lot of understanding of that subject anyway: While the songs sounded great (I was pleased at how much less they sounded like show tunes than on my old Dreamgirls Broadway album) they did a poor job of echoing the various eras they supposedly represented. Murphy’s Jimmy Early is a 50s-character doing 70s music in the early 60s that sounds like a James Brown record produced by Isaac Hayes and recorded with Chicago musicians. It made my head spin! None of the Dreams’ songs capture the Motown magic. The only song in the movie that comes close to being a good fit is the one performed by the “Campbell Connection” kids – and that’s mostly because it’s the most blatantly plagiarized tune that sounds almost exactly like the Jackson 5’s “ABC.” It’s a shame they didn’t even go all the way 70s with the supposed disco version of “One Night Only.” Would it have killed them to throw in a few of those “p’tooo! p’tooo!” sounds we all love from the polyester years? The art directors do a much better job of capturing the look of the era.

I have to say the news songs written for the movie are all very nice. “Listen” is great, but my favourite is probable “Love you I do” co-written by Sieda Garret, who I’m sure knows more than a little bit about Motown musicians as well, having duetted with former Temptation Dennis Edwards on his one solo hit, “Don’t Look Any Further.”

People who read my posts on message boards around the time Jennifer Hudson was on American Idol may remember me as one of her biggest fans from her very early auditions. She really shines in “Dreamgirls” and if this is the vehicle that was needed to finally make her a star, then the movie was worth every penny it cost to be made. Looking forward to her first album.

I guess everything has been said about how great the cast is in this movie, so I’ll keep this short. Hudson and Murphy were the stand-outs, but it was also nice to see Danny Glover (as usual) and to have Dawnn Lewis in a major motion picture, even if it was as Murphy’s rarely seen wife and not a singing role. “A Different World” was one of the few things making the 1980s bearable for me.

I just wish they’d made Deena Jones more like Ms Ross. You know: evil. Deena still comes off as a basically good girl who is misled. They make Jamie Foxx’ character the only real bad guy by blaming everything on him and his manipulations. I mean, what a missed chance to bring a character as fascinatingly villainous as Diana Ross to the big screen! In “Soulful Divas” Dionne Warwick remembers waking up in a hospital room after surgery once and inexplicably finding Ms Ross next to her bed. Dionne’s first thought: “She’s come to kill me!” How great is that? And could we see people reacting like that to Beyoncé’s Deena, who ends up kissing and making up with Effie?

In the end, it felt to me like Dreamgirls was written by a fan about the Supremes he wanted, not the ones we really had. As a result, we get a happy end for Florence Ballard and Diana Ross isn’t even evil. (ALLEGEDLY! Don’t wanna get sued here.) In real life, Flo died in obscurity and Ms Ross couldn’t even have her let the spotlight at her own funeral, causing a major scene with a most likely faked fainting spell. Sure, the truth isn’t very glamorous. But one of my favourite Maya Angelou sayings is “Life is larger than life!” and I feel that a little more real life still would have sold movie tickets.

In Essence, “Dreamgirls” is a great Hollywood movie with a nice soundtrack and a stellar cast. But it has as much to do with Motown as Diana Ross’ “Ladys Sings the Blues” had to do with Billie Holliday. If you want good movies about the Motown experience, get the documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” or even the made-for-tv Temptations movie on DVD. Watching “The Five Heartbeats” again won’t hurt either, though it shares many of the flaws I listed above. If you want a GREAT movie about the music scene in the 60s from a New York, Brill Building perspective, get Allison Anders’ "Grace of my Heart".

1 comment:

Anthony said...

Very interesting. I don't know much about motown but remeber when I was a kid playing the 45 Love Child over and over!