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Diana Ross vs. 'Dreamgirls'
Source: canoe.ca
Posted on: May 15, 2008 07:51 MST
Filed under: R&B, Pop, Celebs

Diana Ross

By this point, we've all seen Dreamgirls, right?

If not the Oscar-nominated film version, then maybe the stage production that wraps at MTC this weekend?

Well, if you have, you might also consider yourself all caught up on the backstory of The Supremes, the real-world girl group whose members provided the inspiration for the rags-to-riches plotline.

But not so fast. While it's obvious Dreamgirls was based on the Motown sensations' life story -- despite constant denials from the play's lawsuit-averse producers -- there's still some discrepancy over just how much of the musical is grounded in fact.

Even those who lived through the story haven't been able to reach a consensus. Founding Supremes member Mary Wilson said the film moved her to tears and came "closer to the truth than they even know."

But Diana Ross -- the group's eventual frontwoman -- has long been a critic of the Broadway production, and denies having seen the film, though she once joked, "Maybe I should go see it with my lawyer."

As a favour to Ross -- the Grammy- and Oscar-nominated diva who touches down at the Concert Hall this Sunday -- we forced ourselves to sit through Dreamgirls a second time.

What follows is our attempt to separate fact from fiction (oh, and big-time spoilers ahead, obviously):

The Origins

In Dreamgirls, the titular trio (first they're The Dreamettes, then The Dreams) is discovered backstage at a talent competition at the Apollo Theatre in New York. They encounter shady car salesman Curtis Taylor, Jr. (representing Motown founder Berry Gordon, Jr.), who gets them a job singing backup for R&B star Jimmy (Thunder) Early (a James Brown/Marvin Gaye surrogate), and together, the two acts score their first mainstream hit (though Curtis resorts to payola to keep them on the air). In reality, The Supremes (then a quartet called The Primettes) got their start as a sister group for The Primes (soon to become The Temptations), releasing eight Motown singles over two years without once cracking the Top 40. And while Gordy was later accused in court of trafficking in payola, those allegations (like the mob ties hinted at in the movie) were never proven to be true.

The Success

The Supremes' fortunes changed in 1963, when they paired with songwriters/producers Holland-Dozier-Holland, who furnished them with classics like Where Did Our Love Go, Baby Love, Back in My Arms Again and Stop! In the Name of Love. By this time, Gordon had made Ross the de facto focal point, in a bid to better court white listeners. In Dreamgirls, Curtis does the same for Deena Jones (see what they did there?), much to the consternation of zaftig belter Effie White, who's supposedly based on Supremes singer Florence Ballard, but always ends up looking/singing more like Aretha Franklin.

The Controversy

In Dreamgirls, everyone starts hopping into bed with each other, making it easier for the dastardly Curtis to replace Effie with another singer, (even though she's totally pregnant with his baby). Jimmy fades into obscurity, Effie sings the show-stopper And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going (to no avail), and Deena and The Dreams forge ahead without her. In reality, Gordy did become romantically involved with Ross (but not Ballard), and he did change the group's name to Diana Ross & The Supremes -- a decision that outraged Ballard, who stepped up her drinking and was eventually dismissed.

The Comeback

Fast-forward five years -- Jimmy suffers an onstage meltdown, Deena wants to trade singing for acting (Curtis won't hear of it) and Effie is a struggling single mom who dreams of a big comeback. And her dreams come true -- in fact, everyone's dreams come true: Effie cuts a hit ballad, Deena ditches Curtis for Hollywood, and Curtis accepts responsibility for his kid, just as all four Dreams reunite onstage for a tear-drenched farewell.

Back in the real world, things didn't turn out quite so swimmingly for Ballard, who went broke and died of a coronary blood clot at the age of 32. The Supremes soldiered on with an endless roster of replacements once Ross embarked on a solo career -- (Gordy, it bears pointing out, moved mountains to land her movie roles in Mahogany and Lady Sings the Blues) -- but never matched the level of success that Ross enjoyed with hits like Upside Down, I'm Coming Out and Touch Me in the Morning. As for that reunion? Well, promoters tried in 2000 to get Ross to tour with Wilson and Cindy Birdsong (Ballard's replacement), but had to settle for second- and third-stringers once the originals found out Ross was to be paid five and 10 times more than them.

So what have we learned? For one thing, sappy showtunes are no match for the polished pop-rock of The Supremes. We'll take You Keep Me Hanging On over I Am Not Going any day of the week, thanks.

Also, Ross probably won't need her lawyer present if and when she ever deigns to watch Dreamgirls. By the looks of it, she got off pretty easy.

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