All the King's Men
The Great Raid
Kingdom of Heaven
Master and Commander
Memoirs of a Geisha
Passion of the Christ
Pirates of the Caribbean
Pride and Prejudice
Walk the Line
By Cathy Schultz (12/27/06)
For the record, Dreamgirls is a fictional account of a hugely
successful black female singing group in the Sixties.
But off the record? The similarities of the film's "Deena
Jones and the Dreams" and the real-life "Diana Ross and
the Supremes," are overwhelming, and the sense of reality is
only heightened when characters resembling James Brown, the Jackson
Five, and famed Motown manager Berry Gordy appear on the screen.
The original Supremes certainly noted the similarities. Mary Wilson
recalled crying upon first seeing "Dreamgirls" in its
Broadway incarnation in the 1980s, because, she said, "there
were bits and pieces of my life - and the lives of my two best friends
- up there." Diana Ross was less sanguine. She hated the Broadway
musical, according to a long-time colleague, "because she feels
like she's been ripped off, like its creators changed just enough
key elements of her story so they didn't have to pay her royalties."
Twenty-five years after its triumphant Broadway debut, Dreamgirls,
the film, has just opened to good buzz and great box-office. And
even though the filmmakers can't, or won't, admit to it, here are
some ways the film echoes the story of the Supremes.
Q. In the movie, the three girls are discovered in a talent
show by manager Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx) who sends them out on
tour as backup singers for another artist. Is that what happened
to the Supremes?
A. Just about. But the Supremes (Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Flo
Ballard) weren't "discovered." They had sought out Berry
Gordy, the founder of Motown Records for an audition, and signed
with him in 1961, while still only in their teens. As in the film,
Gordy soon sent them out to tour on the so-called "Chitlin'
Circuit," a collection of ex-vaudeville houses in black neighborhoods.
Unlike in the film, however, Gordy had been in the music business
for a few years by 1961, and already managed a large group of artists
soon to skyrocket to success at Motown, like Smokey Robinson, Marvin
Gaye, the Temptations, and a young Stevie Wonder. All of them -
and others - went on the Motown tours together in the early 1960s,
and each took turns taking the stage.
Q. Did Diana Ross take over as lead singer in the same way Deena
Jones does in the film?
A. In the film, the full-figured and full-voiced Effie (Jennifer
Hudson) sings lead for the group, until manager Curtis peremptorily
anoints Deena (Beyonce Knowles) as lead, betting that her slender
figure and softer voice would "cross over" to white audiences
better. That's fairly close to what happened in the Supremes. Most
industry observers thought that Flo Ballard, Effie's real life counterpart,
had the best and strongest voice, though initially all three girls
took turns singing lead for the group. But Gordy wanted Ross to
be the lead, and pushed the other two girls into the background.
Q. Did Gordy have an affair first with Flo and later Diana,
as the film suggests?
A. The real Gordy was quite the ladies' man, fathering seven children
by four different women, and conducting numerous affairs. But he
never had a fling with Flo Ballard, though he did carry on a long
affair with Diana Ross, which he discusses in his memoir.
Q. Was Flo Ballard suddenly replaced in the group, like Effie
is in the film?
A. She was replaced, but not quite as abruptly as shown. In her
memoir, Wilson reports that Ballard's resentment over Ross' prominence
created simmering tensions in the group. One night following a performance,
Ballard attacked Ross in the dressing room and had to be pulled
off her by two security guards.
Ballard also developed a drinking problem. By 1966, she was often
showing up late for rehearsals and press conferences, and occasionally
got so drunk that she missed entire performances. Gordy hired Cindy
Birdsong as a standby singer for those occasions, and in early 1967
installed Birdsong as a permanent member of the Supremes, sending
Ballard packing back to Detroit.
Though the film's Effie makes a solo comeback, the real Flo Ballard
never could. She had three children, battled depression, and ended
up on welfare in Detroit, where she died in 1976 from cardiac arrest.
The autopsy revealed both alcohol and pills in her system. She was
only thirty-two years old.
Q. In the film, Deena marries Curtis, and continues to get manipulated
by him. How true is that?
A. Diana Ross and Berry Gordy never married, though they did have
a child together. And while the film's Deena is naïve and often
passive, many Motown veterans charged that Ross was by contrast
a schemer and a diva. Former Supreme Wilson, for instance, said
that Ross "was obsessed not with being a star, but the star."
Ross's defenders hotly charge that such accusations arise from jealousy
over Ross's stunning success.
Q. Where can I find more background information on the Supremes?
A. I'd suggest Mary Wilson's Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme,
which brims with backstage gossip and a liberal dishing of dirt.
Be forewarned, though. Diana Ross would not approve.
Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University
of St. Francis in Illinois. You can reach her through her website
A (kind of fictional) take on Motown