Mercy, Mercy Me
Smokey Robinson has come out swinging against Dreamgirls, and more power to him. In a recent NPR interview, he called the film’s portrayal of Motown Records and its founder, Berry Gordy, “very, very offensive.” Mind you, this is a guy who’s had his differences with Gordy.
“Nobody was paying us,” Smokey said. “So [Gordy] borrowed $800 from his family’s fund and started Motown so that we could be paid .?.?. Motown is Beyoncé’s heritage. Motown is Jamie Foxx’s heritage. Motown is Eddie Murphy’s heritage.”
In truth, Motown is all our heritage, both artistically and in business terms. And its example as an independent, artist-owned record label only grows in value as major labels decay.
Dreamgirls uses fiction to tell brutal truths about the music industry. And, in a general sense, Dreamgirls offers the most honest depiction of music-industry culture — a culture largely owned and controlled by white men — I’ve ever seen on film.
But Dreamgirls also uses moments plucked from real life to tell broad-stroke lies about specific — black — individuals. Its creators would like us to think that its characters are mere composites, but small details of their depiction are so specific, it’s impossible for us to not view these characters as thinly veiled versions of people we already know. The movie wants to have it both ways: to tell big lies and big truths at the same time, and hope we’ll figure it all out for ourselves.
Example: Eddie Murphy’s character, over the course of the film, develops into a Marvin Gaye–like figure, with a major drug problem, a crocheted beanie, and a kind of artistic struggle between his “true” self and the image that his Berry Gordy–like boss, played by Jamie Foxx, wants him to present to the world.
In one crucial scene, Murphy and his collaborator present a new song to Foxx: It’s a new sound for him, with a new look and a more socially conscious message than his previous work. It also sounds a lot like Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).” Foxx’s character rejects it immediately. He has become so obsessed with crossover success — and with an outmoded concept of what that requires — he doesn’t even grasp that political music has become hip.
The reality is that as controlling as Gordy may have been, he was much, much savvier than that. He understood the commercial potential of bold music, controversial music, music that sounded utterly different from anything anyone had ever heard.
And unlike Foxx’s guy, Gordy was a songwriter.
And, oh yeah: “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” was released on Motown in 1971.
Obviously, the music of Dreamgirls pales (literally) in comparison to Motown’s real output, but that’s not my problem with the film. I don’t even mind its portrayal of Gordy as a fiscal snake. The crime of this movie is its artistic portrayal of Gordy as some kind of Oreo-eating sellout.
The truth is that again and again, throughout the ’60s and ’70s, Gordy and his absolutely brilliant team of composers, arrangers and performers created music that hit the sweet spot where style and substance meet — and get it on. Much like the Beatles, they made pop music that was great. Period. To imply that such popular music couldn’t also be true to its own soul (and likewise to assume that white people can’t dig truly “black” music) is, obviously, dunderheaded — if not racist.
Another thing: Dreamgirls references Motown acts like the Supremes, the Jackson Five and Marvin Gaye. But you never see a group that kinda-sorta reminds you of the Temptations. Why not? Surely the Temptations were one of Motown’s most important (and beloved) acts: They spent longer than virtually anyone on Motown — 40 years! They were the brother act to the early Supremes! (They were called the Primes; the girls were the Primettes.) In some ways, the Temptations’ story is the Motown story. So why are they absent here?
My guess is, they were just too good. The Temptations’ history, and their discography, represent a lot of what was righteous and ?beautiful about Motown — and especially about Gordy as its leader. They made black music — black men’s music: strong, masculine, artistically and politically daring, ominous at moments but deeply benevolent. They were black brotherhood in the flesh, spiritually as much the sons of James Brown as of the Flamingoes. And with the genius of composer/producer Norman Whitfield behind them, they managed to take an old-fashioned template — the doo-wop vocal group — and reinvent it for more complicated times. With Cloud Nine (1969) and Psychedelic Shack (1970), they blazed the “psychedelic soul” trail for “What’s Going On” — and for younger brothers like Earth, Wind & Fire. They crossed over, all right, but they never did it in a bullshit way. Even their Christmas album, for God’s sake, had a political message.
Dreamgirls would have us thinking Gordy was slavishly concerned with assumed marketplace conservatism: Foxx’s guy would never dream of doing what Gordy did in 1972, when he released the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” included on the LP All Directions. Most people are familiar with the version they hear today on oldies radio, but let me tell you: “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” is a 12-minute song. It’s a 12-minute song. Even the radio edit released at the time was seven minutes. Sellouts do not release seven-minute singles.
And when you hear “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” at length, you begin to grasp what a truly weird song it is. There are light-years of near-empty space in there, hypnotically throbbing like the pulsing shapes you see when you close your eyes in the dark. And to hear that song in the context of an entire album of similarly bizarre recordings — like an almost heroin-drowsy rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” — it’s literally better than drugs. All Directions would be a daring release now — forget about 35 years ago. Nobody made music quite like this.
By the way, a lot of the artistic struggle depicted in the film — the reduction that goes into packaging art for mass popularity — is something that any artist, of any color, must contend with. Creating pop art can require a certain simplification — or distillation, say — of one’s vision. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In fact, that distillation process can make the difference between good pop and deathless pop. I’m not saying black artists don’t have it tougher than white ones; I’m just saying that all of this is a lot more complicated than Dreamgirls would have us believe.
That distillation process happened on a daily basis at Motown. But the label’s legacy, at its best, proves that there is an important difference between distilling an artistic vision and watering it down. Under Berry Gordy, the Temptations also had a pretty rad song called “Stop the War.”
I haven’t heard anything like that from Beyoncé or Jamie Foxx lately.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.