Monday, July 2, 2007

Where Dreamgirls Fails: The Sad and Tragic Tale of Florence Ballard

There's a lot of weird messages in Dreamgirls. As I said when I briefly touched on it before it's a movie that, because of the source material it's appropriating, is really, really deep. You're talking about the Motown scene and that carries everything from the Civil Rights movement to payolla to urban blight to the 12th Street Riots with it. It's an attempt to recreate a time and a place and that's the Detroit of the 60s and 70s. And that's a volatile place and a heady time to be talking about. And the movie just can't carry through with the emotional depth needed to confront all the issues and legacies it brings up. It really betrays its Broadway roots because it feels like the scenes of people talking and interacting are just there to bridge between the songs. Indeed, if you watch the extras on the DVD copy I had you can see that there's a cut of the movie out there that's a lot more like a traditional musical – I've never seen the stage production but comparing the two, there's some songs they dropped from the movie in favor of more...actorly moments. But I don't think they went far enough. For a movie studded with great acting it never gets up into the characters talking to each other, just talking at each other. For a movie about Soul music, it doesn't have a lot of soul.

And, to me, nothing illustrates this more than what the film does with the heartwrenchingly tragic tale of Florence Ballard. An original member of the Supremes, Florence Ballard was pushed out of the group for the same reason Effie leaves the Dreams in the film – she was too black, too big, too fat for the group to crossover. Even though she was a better, stronger singer than Diana Ross who maps to the Beyonce role, Deena. And, like Effie, she sank back into the poverty she originally came from in Detroit. Rapidly blowing through the massive payout she received from Motown (As in the movie, where Effie mentions having lost half a million dollars by drinking it away) and having her musical career crushed thanks, in part, to interference and contractual strictures from Motown Records (She couldn't, for example, mention in advertising that she was a former member of the Supremes.). She wound up with several children, on welfare, a single mother. In the movie, Effie is saved because she's the sister of the Smokey Robinson stand-in. She manages to take back her career and her destiny from the Motown analog of Rainbow Records by recording a hit single and lawyering up.

Well, that's also what happened, more or less, with Ms. Ballard. Although she never had a final showdown with Barry Gordy that I'm aware of – it's a movie and you need some resolution, not to mention a villain so the character Jamie Foxx plays was a broad and sinister character – but she did have an unexpected legal windfall that led her back into singing. Over the years she appeared with the Supremes, she started doing concert appearances. It looked like she might be on the road back. And that's where the movie ends with Effie starting again with a new recording label, with her brother, with her friends, following in her lead. You know, your typical Hollywood happy ending.

But in real life, Florence Ballard died just months after hitting the comeback trail. Heart attack. Dead at the age of 32.

If the script had the courage to end like that, it might have really been something. If it was able not just to tap into the spirit of the times but to show the tragedy of them, too, it might not be so hollow.

My mother, who's been pushing me to watch the film for months because she's a Motown nut – she grew up in the Detroit of the 50s and 60s and I can only imagine how this film resonates with her – has a slightly different take. She say that it's the story of Diana Ross, really (Which, if you follow the 17 minute rule, is right.). That it's about how R&B music had to become, well, whiter to move into the mainstream. And the movie does a very accurate job of portraying that as well as the pain, the suffering, the moral quandries it causes the performers involved. But it also tries to have the message that this abrogation of cultural heritage is a bad thing. That the soul at the heart of the music, of the musicians, is important and it loses something when it's taken away. And the film rings hollow because it says they can put that soul back into it and still expect to be successful. That you don't have to conform, that you can hold onto your dreams without compromising them. But people forgot Florance Ballard. They still remember Diana Ross. It's a Disneyfied version of reality, then, where people who wish long enough and work hard enough can right any wrong. But the weight of the real history woven into the story just crushes that notion flat.

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