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Does 'Dreamgirls' Offer Lowdown on Motown?

The movie Dreamgirls tells the story of the rise of a small black record label and the ups and downs of its star girl group. The plot draws quite a bit from the story of Motown Records, its founder Berry Gordy Jr., and the Supremes. But how much of the saga of show-biz betrayal is real and how much is fiction?

Jennifer Hudson, who plays Effie White in the movie, won a Golden Globe for her performance (and is nominated for an Oscar in a supporting role). Hudson dedicated her Golden Globe to "a lady who never really got a fair chance, Florence Ballard ..." Many believe Ballard is the prototype for the character Effie.

As the lead singer for the Dreams, Effie is replaced by the thinner, prettier Deena, who bears a close resemblance to Diana Ross in clothes, makeup and accessories.

What really happened?

Mary Wilson, one of the other original Supremes, grew up in the Detroit projects with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard.

Wilson says Ballard "was sort of overlooked within the group in terms of being the main singer, so therefore her talents were never really used."

Eddie Holland — who with his brother Brian and Lamont Dozier wrote most of the Supremes' biggest hits — says Ballard was never pushed out of a lead singer role.

"Florence was never a lead singer, per se," he says. "Brian and Lamont and I knew that Diana Ross would be the lead singer," Holland says. "Diana's voice is extremely unique and very sensuous ... and that had a lot to do with the success of those records."

Berry Gordy did use Ballard as lead singer on a song he wrote in the early days of the Supremes, called "Buttered Popcorn."

The song puts Ballard's soulful voice on display, but also shows she might not have had the right quality to help the Supremes cross over to a white audience.

"She had a much more 'soul' kind of voice than Diana Ross," says Gerald Early, who wrote a book about Motown called One Nation Under a Groove. "That kind of material the Supremes were singing, that voice was not necessarily best suited for that kind of material."

Eddie Holland says Gordy never told them what to write or which singers to use. Gordy eventually did change the name of the group to Diana Ross and the Supremes.

Ballard left the group in 1967. After that, Wilson says, Ballard's life went downhill. She tried for a solo career, but never made it. She went on welfare, and troubled by depression and alcoholism, she died at 32.

The music business is not for the faint of heart, and to make Motown as successful as it was, Berry 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 record straight — that Berry Gordon Jr. was nothing like his counterpart in the movie, slick, conniving and controlling.

Another who finds fault with the film's version of the story is Motown pioneer Smokey Robinson, the singer and songwriter.

"I really am quite upset about it, because there's a lot of false information in there, and millions of people are seeing it every day," Robinson says.

Robinson says in starting Motown, Gordy offered dozens of young black artists better employment.

"Nobody was paying us. So he borrowed $800 from his family's fund and started Motown, so that we could be paid," Robinson says. "And for him to be maligned and made out like this villainous character is very, very, very offensive to me."

Robinson says the stars of the film have tarnished their own history.

"Motown is Beyonce's heritage. Motown is Jamie Foxx' heritage. Motown is Eddie Murphy's heritage," he says.

"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."

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 production, once said, if it were the story of the Supremes, he would have been sued.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.