Dreamgirls: a compelling story of triumph
| By Sandra Howell
Is Dreamgirls an archetype of bestselling female pop groups from as far back as the mid-20th century? Well yes and no. Dreamgirls, which is not so loosely based on the 60s pop trio, The Supremes, has all the elements that make up the history and lore of bestselling female pop groups in the West (Billboard’s top 40 biggest girl groups of all time).
Just as in Dreamgirls, some of the bestselling female pop groups were formed by members of the group itself, while groups such as TLC, En Vogue or Spice Girls were manufactured by a record company (a management team, record producer or songwriters) and geared towards a specific market. Hundreds and even thousands of people would turn up for open auditions in hopes of becoming the next big thing. What all these girl groups appear to have had in common was that they were moulded or controlled by male entrepreneurs taking advantage of the talent of young women for more power in the music industry and their own financial gain. However, it would be wrong to portray these women as passive puppets.
Many of them were ambitious young women just like the singers in Dreamgirls who, within the course of the story, are persuaded and manipulated into becoming back-up singers for Jimmy Early instead of trying to make it on their own. They seize the opportunity, using it as a launchpad to gain experience and become a success in their own right. Entrepreneur and self-appointed manager Curtis decides when the girls should break away from Jimmy Early and helps to transform the trio into best-selling artists. Curtis picks what songs they should record and release and who should be the lead singer. In the history of pop culture, the majority of hit female groups were not singer-songwriters themselves and it seems that, at least initially, they had no real creative control over their music. This is not at all surprising. Even the refrain in Dreamgirls says, ‘This is show business.’ And as a business, the main focus of a record company is for its female pop groups to become a marketable brand that appeals to a broad audience for the sake of selling as many records and merchandise as possible.
The story of Dreamgirls also deals with the dark side of fame and for two of the characters, this results in alcohol dependency and drug addiction, which is not at all uncommon in pop music history. Effie is the one who grows heavily dependent on alcohol whilst Jimmy Early, in addition to being a player, becomes addicted to drugs. Eventually, as with most of the bestselling female pop groups from the mid-fifties to the present, the group breaks up. In Dreamgirls, the lead singer, Deanna, is brought to the spotlight by Curtis with the other two Dreamgirls becoming her back-up singers. It then only seems like a natural progression for Deanna to break out as a solo artist; however, it seems that Curtis had been planning this all along.
Dreamgirls works on so many levels. Not only does it serve as pure musical entertainment that’s full of energy and uplifts you, but it also serves as political and social commentary on the impact of racism, particularly at the height of Jim Crow in America, and of how many female artists in the recording industry were moulded and controlled by men who still rule the music world.
Dreamgirls is one of my favourite musicals not just because of the high entertainment value and the sensational talent of the actors/singers/dancers, but also because of the compelling story of triumph by African-American female artists who take back control of an industry still heavily dominated by males, particularly at the upper echelons.