The movie Dreamgirls was expected to be an unqualified success, and it almost has been. A film adaptation of the 1981 musical based on the rise of Motown and the Supremes, it's made almost $100 million at the box office, and received eight Academy Award nominations. But, in an Oscar upset, it's not up for Best Picture. And some people are unhappy with the way the film deals with its source material. Motown star Smokey Robinson, for instance, is angry about the character modeled after Motown founder Berry Gordy. "Nobody was paying us," he told NPR's Morning Edition. "So he (Gordy) 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."
Berry Gordy, I suspect, will survive. My biggest complaint is about the songs. This is a movie about music, and the songs absolutely stink. This isn't just an insult to the audience. It's an insult to one of the greatest songwriting teams in history: Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, Jr.
Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland were the composers. Eddie Holland was the lyricist. Together, they wrote "Heat Wave," "Nowhere to Run," and "Jimmy Mack" for Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. "Can I Get a Witness" and "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)" for Marvin Gaye. "Mickey's Monkey" for the Miracles, "(I'm a) Roadrunner" for Jr. Walker & the All-Stars and "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)" for the Isley Brothers. "Baby, I Need Your Loving," "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)," "It's the Same Old Song," "Reach Out (I'll Be There)," "Standing in the Shadows of Love" and "Bernadette" for the Four Tops. And, of course, "Where Did Our Love Go," "Baby Love," "Stop! In the Name of Love," "I Hear a Symphony," "You Can't Hurry Love," "You Keep Me Hangin' On" and "Reflections" for the Supremes.
This incredible run included 25 top ten singles — including five consecutive number ones for the Supremes — between 1963 and 1967. Yes, all that, in only four years.
Compared with the least of these, the songs in Dreamgirls are tepid gruel. I don't mind pastiche; a fake genre song by someone like Sondheim (e.g., "Broadway Baby" in Follies) is almost as good as the real thing. But I have to agree with A.O. Scott in the Times, who wrote, "As the cushioned blasts of overorchestrated thunder assaulted my ears, I would have given anything for a crisp horn chart, a clean drum line, a chattering rhythm guitar or even a memorably witty or catchy verse." All we get instead is the controlled hysteria of "And I Am Telling You That I'm Not Leaving." It was electrifying when delivered by Jennifer Holliday 25 years ago; now, it's such a cliché that comedian Martin Short included a number simply called "Let a Big Black Lady Stop the Show" in his recent Broadway comedy, just to get it out of the way.
Ah, now consider, instead, the real thing. Can you hear it? That great two-chord vamp that begins "Heat Wave." The lovely fermata that follows "I just have to stop..." in the bridge for "How Sweet It Is." The tense, echoing guitar figure that introduces "You Keep Me Hangin' On." The gutteral shout from Levi Stubbs that precedes the chorus of "Reach Out (I'll Be There)." And that beautiful, "Oooh...ooh" that floats, suspended over the handclaps, in "Baby Love."
Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland had 9 to 5 jobs: writing songs for Motown Records. They didn't think they were making art at the time. "I remember saying back at Motown, 'Man, I would love to write classic songs, like a "White Christmas,'" Brian Holland told an interviewer. It was no coincidence that Motown was headquartered in the home of Ford, Chrysler and General Motors. The goal was cranking out product. "Early on, Brian and Lamont were already writing together, and they were very prolific at writing melodies and producing tracks," remembered Eddie Holland. "It was the lyric writing which slowed them down. So I suggested that I join the team as a lyricist, so that their production output would be much higher." Increasing production output: that was the name of the Detroit game.
But what delicacy and genius the writers brought to the process. What amazes me most is the way they managed to create a different sound for each artist. Martha Reeves was the happy party girl. The Supremes were always bittersweet, repeating words like incantations. And, my favorites, the agonized, obsessively paranoid Four Tops. It was a remarkable kind of quasi-industrial creative process that could produce "Reach Out" (which Dave Marsh called "a terrifying melodrama" and Phil Spector called "black Dylan") or that most disturbingly obsessive love song of all:
But while I live only to hold you,
Some other men, they long to control you.
But how can they control you, Bernadette,
when they can not control themselves, Bernadette,
from wanting you, needing you?
But, darling, you belong to me.
The production facility at Motown in its glory days was formidable. H-D-H's fellow songwriters included Smokey Robinson, who wrote not only for the Miracles but Mary Wells ("My Guy"), Marvin Gaye ("Ain't That Peculiar"), and Norman Whitfield, who created the dark, towering sound of the late Temptations ("Cloud Nine," "Ball of Confusion," "Papa Was a Rolling Stone"). The writers would deliver finished (or even half-finished) songs to the best studio band in history, The Funk Brothers, grounded by the best bass player in history, James Jamerson. (If you doubt these superlatives, check out Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the 2002 documentary that brought these unheralded superstars some long-deserved recognition.)
As Noel Coward wrote in an entirely different era, "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is." Sometimes our most artless, workmanlike efforts surprise us with their staying power. Years ago, when someone like a cab driver would ask me what I did for a living, I'd say, "Commercial artist." Everyone has a computer now — hell, everyone's a graphic designer — so there's no longer any need to look for a more understandable synonym.
But I have to admit, I always liked the forthright sound of Commercial Artist. I believe that's what Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland were. And if I could toss off a single poster one one-hundredth as good as "Bernadette," I'd retire a very happy designer.