December 27th, 2006

“Dreaming” of the Supremes

Last night I went to the movies to see “Dreamgirls.” I wanted some light entertainment, and I got it.

I was in Brooklyn, and the audience at the large and crowded theater I happened to go to was approximately 99% African-American. This made for a more interesting viewing experience than I would have had if I’d been back home. I expect that audiences in New England are enjoying the film, too. But I very much doubt that their delight goes quite as deep or is expressed quite as strongly as that of my fellow viewers last night.

This audience especially adored Jennifer Hudson and her vocal riffs. And Eddie Murphy (who, to my surprise, actually can sing) was a crowd favorite.

For me–well, I have to say, I loved the costumes, the wigs, and the makeup. They brought back memories of the original Supremes–sorta, kinda.

The movie moved me to go to my computer (where else?) and refresh my memory on some of the real history of the Supremes, which of course is very different from that of the fictional group in the film. For one thing, there was no dreamy rapprochement among the girls–Flo Ballard stayed estranged from the rest. There were many other differences, as well–including Ballard’s untimely death at the age of thirty-two.

But although the film doesn’t purport to be a documentary, it can’t help but dredge up the Supremes’ memory for those of us “of a certain age.” And being of that age myself, I can say that the Supremes really were a glamorous bunch, the first mainstream crossover African-American (Negro, in those days) sex symbols, which was exactly what they were designed and marketed to be. Berry Gordy was some kind of genius; whatever else you might say of him, he really knew his stuff.

The movie is too long, the music inferior (and quite different) to my ears than the Motown originals, and the film has the annoying habit–de rigueur in theatrical musicals; acceptable on stage but always bizarre and almost comical on film–of the main characters breaking into song at odd intervals when they should by all rights be speaking to each other. But, once you accept that convention (and accept it you must, if you want to have a good time), it’s a fun evocation of a small part of an exciting era in musical and American history.

Those who weren’t there may think the costumes are over the top. But I don’t think so. The Supremes were known for their elegant, and then flamboyant (but still elegant) costuming and elaborate wigs, which managed to keep up with the times–and the times they did a-change during the years of their greatest popularity, mid-to late 60s.

They were also known for their stylized choreography, and in this the film is quite different from that of the earlier era; these days more pizazz is demanded. There is nothing I noticed in the movie that can quite compare with the wonderful just-this-side-of-camp hand business that accompanied the Supremes’ hit “Stop! In the Name of Love!,” which featured a breezy and almost self-mocking recurrent traffic-cop-like gesture, arm outstretched and palm towards the audience.

If you want to see it, tune in to U-tube for the original–or several originals; it features a few different performances. Please admire those simple classic white dresses at the beginning; I had one just like them. Notice, also, that Florence Ballard (on the left in the first clip, and on whom the Jennifer Hudson character was roughly modeled) was nowhere near heavy, unlike the character in the movie. In fact, she’s perhaps the most graceful mover of the three, and that’s saying quite a bit.

If you want more early Supremes, take a look. Once again, you’ll see that the choreography was limited to a suggestive but restrained body shake, and expressive hand gestures. Simple white dresses again. Filmed somewhere in London, this clip also demonstrates a fact I first noticed in the 60s: British teenagers were unable to dance. It was as though they’d missed out on some important formative phase of life–they just couldn’t do it. I don’t know whether that problem has been remedied in the intervening decades, but at the time it seemed very odd but very noticeable–despite the Beatles and the Stones, these kids just couldn’t shake it.

For a slightly later, more sparkly, more glam phase of the Supremes oeuvre, try this. Still having fun with the hand motions (a sort of hula-like thing going on there for this one), and the wigs look like they’re about to take off and fly, at least on one side.

Lastly, for those who think that the scene in the film where the group sports geometric Vidal Sassoon-ish haircuts and Courreges-inspired minis might be fiction, think again. The Supremes definitely had a mod phase; here’s the album cover to prove it (one I owned once upon a time, “The Supremes A’ Go-Go”):


The 60s were a big tent, musically. The Supremes and other “girl groups” were a large part of it, and they were innovative in their own way. Motown was the prototype of something unusual at the time: an African-American owned and run company featuring predominantly African-American singers, that was tremendously successful in appealing to mainstream audiences, paving the way for many other African-American musicians who followed. And they were fun.

18 Responses to ““Dreaming” of the Supremes”

  1. Rick Richman Says:

    “Dreamgirls” does turn into a morality play at the end, as opposed to the quasi-documentary/musical that constitutes most of the film, but — like all morality plays — it improves upon life. The film was a nice diversion at a difficult time.

  2. Gray Says:

    Ah, so it’s pretty much a baby-boomer thing….

    M’eh….

  3. Harry Says:

    Thanks for the post. I grew up in the suburbs of Motown, watching “Swingin’ Time” on CKLW, but I didn’t see the SUpremes or even James Brown live until the 1980s.

    My brother, on the other hand, saw many such, including a 1960s concert by the Hardest Working Man in Show Business in Detroit’s Olympia, before an audience with similar ethnicity to the theatre you attended last night.

  4. kungfu Says:

    Neo,

    You probably want to write “African-American” rather than “Afro-American.”

    “Afro-American” is not really in use any more, in the same way “colored” or “negro” has fallen out of fashion.

  5. Steve Says:

    My memories of Motown came out of the context of my exposure to what was then considered “Negro” music, such as the Mills Brothers, which later turned into an endless pageant of doowop groups, and pop standards like Ray Charles, Harry Belafonte, and Ella Fitzgerald.

    When Motown first emerged, with groups like the Temptations, Smokey Robinson’s group (Miracles?), the Supremes, the Four Tops, and Stevie Wonder, what attracted me was not just the amped up velocity compared to most white music at the time (remember Leslie Gore?) but also the fabulous bass lines, and true counterpoint of treble and bass (“Reflections” from 1967 is a good example, but there were many; interestingly the Tops did a cover of “Reflections” that was terrific in its own way.) Later, I found out that the engine behind this aspect of Motown was James Jamerson and his Fender bass and the rest of the house band, dubbed “The Funk Brothers.”

    Motown was great: but the key was, and always is, good music and well thought out arrangements.

  6. Steve Says:

    I think the term of art these days is “African American”, but it is only used once or twice in a discourse; otherwise “Black” is employed and is acceptable.

  7. neo-neocon Says:

    Ah, it’s so hard to keep up with fashions in PC address. Almost as hard as to keep up with fashion itself.

    Will fix.

  8. neo-neocon Says:

    Oh, and by the way, Steve–the trouble with using the term “Black” in a post about the Supremes is that prior to its becoming acceptable it was considered a pejorative and demeaning term. In the 50s and even the early 60s, when the Supremes first were coming up, it would have been a no-no.

  9. Steve Says:

    Neo: I agree. It’s tricky because there are entire issues of self-esteem and selfhood involved. Even in the late ’50′s I could sense a hierarchy, where the N word was worst, colored was a bit better, negro was the term, and, if you spelled “Negro” with a cap you were a true progressive.

    I think the term “Black” (not “black”, caps are important in these things, at least to me: as a former Marine nothing pisses me off like seeing Marine spelled with a small “m” which, BTW, the NY Times always does, but not the Wapo) as a matter of fact, got going in the late ’60′s, for a lot of reasons, but the late lamented JAMES BROWN (“I dunno what I’m gonna post on the blog today, but, whatever it is, it’s got to be funky”)’s hit, “Say it Loud” had a lot to do with it.

    You make a very good point about anachronism, however, in intellectual discourse. I well remember a professor telling us that the German peasantry of the early 19th Century was sexist and male chauvinist.

  10. Ymarsakar Says:

    Oh, and by the way, Steve–the trouble with using the term “Black” in a post about the Supremes is that prior to it’s becoming acceptable it was considered a perjorative and demeaning term. In the 50s and even the early 60s, when the Supremes first were coming up, it would have been a no-no.
    neo-neocon | Homepage | 12.27.06 – 3:31 pm | #

    You know that hand thing? I think it might have been the basis for the gesture I frequently see from young black women. “Talk to the hand”. Or a simple gesture of annoyance where they hold the hand up, then snap their fingers as the hand sways left and right, as it goes down. All in all, it presents a curious and rather sharp body language gesture, not at all what you saw on the youtube video. Not relaxed, but sharp, tense, aggressive. Almost like a military salute in its precision and snappiness.

    You know, Neo, Bookworm had a huge discussion in her comments section on race before Christmas.

    Check out if have time

  11. Ymarsakar Says:

    checking something out

  12. Ymarsakar Says:

    It means it reduces swelling of the muscles. Lance Armstrong and that other American cyclist used it before.

  13. EyeBallOnYou Says:

    EyeBallsOnYou is banned for anti-Semitic content.

  14. goesh Says:

    Excellant post, as usual

  15. nahncee Says:

    I think I will be disappointed when I get around to seeing the movie, because I can’t imagine the music being as good as Motown was. Have I ever heard any of the songs from the Broadway play on the radio as a stand-alone hit?

  16. Victor Krueger Says:

    I won’t see it, that style of music isn’t to my taste. Eddie Murphy being able to sing doesn’t surprise me. His comedy has always included a lot of control over his voice. He did “party all the time” which became (was made into) a top 40 hit back in the 80s. and before that “boogie in my butt” which was a sorta proto-rap thing on one of his comedy albums. Both were done before such modern digital studio things like ProTools. Timing and being on key had to be right, that couldn’t be fixed the way it can nowdays.

  17. Tom Grey Says:

    When Lew Alcindor became a Black Muslim, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar … and Tommy Smith plus (??) raised their black-gloved hands in salute while getting medals at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics…

    Negros (Negroes?) became Black.

    No matter what they call themselves or are called, if poor people don’t graduate from high school, don’t hold a job for a year, and don’t avoid sex outside of marriage — such a group of poor people will remain poor. (Black, white, brown; even Jewish)

    Motown had some great voices and music.

    Are there any famous black women singers who do NOT straighten their kinky hair? who have an “afro”?

  18. Jamie Stewart Says:

    you can say that eddie murphy is the best comedian of all times:*”

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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