The most-senior cast member of "Dreamgirls," Danny Glover offers personal reflection on Motown's heyday

January 2nd, 2007

Motown Sound
New Dreamgirls' recalls heyday of Detroit's soulful music

By Ed Bradley

Alone among the members of the principal cast of “Dreamgirls,” Danny Glover is old enough to remember the heyday of the music Detroit made great.

“I grew up with Motown,” says the actor. “I'm 60 years old, and I came up with a lot of that music.”

So when Glover sees the movie's fictional girl group, the Dreams (think the Supremes), show off their soulful voices and soul pioneer James “Thunder” Early (read: James Brown) electrify audiences with his high-energy act, Glover has a frame of reference that such co-stars as Beyonce Knowles and Eddie Murphy lack.

“I know about those Motown revues because I went to them in 1962 when I was 15 or 16,” Glover said over the phone recently from his native California. “I loved those artists; I tried to sing like them.

“I'd sit on the corner and try to sing like Marvin Gaye or the Temptations. Smokey Robinson was my favorite; I tried to hit those high notes when I was a kid. We'd read every single magazine story, in Ebony and other magazines, that told us something more about these men and women we idolized.”

The makers of “Dreamgirls” – a thinly veiled retelling of the story of Motown Records – hope to fuel that sense of nostalgia. The big-screen version of the 1981 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, set to open Christmas Day nationwide, has been deemed by many Oscar watchers as the favorite for the best-picture statuette.

Co-producers Paramount and DreamWorks already are pushing acting honors for Murphy, who plays the self-destructive Early; Beyonce, as Deena Jones, the Diana Ross-like leader of the Dreams, and – especially – newcomer Jennifer Hudson, as Effie White, the big-voiced but less photogenic Dream whom fame leaves behind. “American Idol” alumna Hudson has the film's show-stopping, character-defining tune, “I Am Telling You I'm Not Going.”

Jamie Foxx, who won a 2004 Academy Award as Ray Charles, is being talked about for another for his role as the Dreams' manager, Curtis Taylor Jr., who rises from the lot of a Detroit car dealership to oversee a multimedia empire – just as Berry Gordy Jr. did for real in the '60s and '70s.

“Dreamgirls” also dares to continue the steady comeback of the undervalued movie musical genre. Its director and screenwriter, Bill Condon, was Oscar-nominated for his script of the 2002 Best Picture Oscar winner, “Chicago,” and, outside the musical field, won an Oscar for his script for “Gods and Monsters” (1998).

“This movie is going to be a gamble,” acknowledged Glover. “How do you necessitate the moment of seeing 'Dreamgirls' for all of those people who saw the play, and visualize it in another medium?

“I sat in the audience the other night and saw people respond to this film, and it was almost as if it were a play. (After) every song, they clapped….This movie takes us to another time, and a lot of people in this country remember when their lives revolved around this music. They had pain, listened to it and the music brought them out of it.”

“Dreamgirls” explores the music in the social and political context of its period, which included the growth of the civil rights movement, the rising commercialization of popular music and, most germane to Glover's character, the commodifying of artists.

Glover portrays Marty Madison, the longtime manager of Jimmy Early, who is faced with losing his friend and client when Curtis promises to break the performer out of the all-black chitlin circuit into more whites-friendly uptown bookings.

“Marty believes that a handshake is his word,” Glover said. “He's in another territory, and he decides to walk away. Marty is part of the previous generation, one of those men who helped usher their clients to those moments when they had to decide what color of show to stay in….To Marty, James 'Thunder' Early isn't just his client, he's a human being, a surrogate son who walked those moments with him.”

Glover, best known for the “Lethal Weapon” films with Mel Gibson, was asked to join the cast by Condon.

“That's the best thing, when the director asks you to be part of it,” he said. “I talked to Bill and really bought into his vision. He asked me to be part of this, which was really an opportunity to be part of something really special. I knew the musical; I was on Broadway down the street (in 'Master Harold…and the Boys') at the same time. I knew what 'Dreamgirls' meant to the black community in this country. People came from all over the country to see that musical.”

As he watches the awards-season attention bestowed upon the film, Glover sees how the experience of the younger actors mirrors his own in “The Color Purple,” his own breakout drama (and one for Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Laurence Fishburne, too).

“In a sense, it reminds me of 21 years ago when a lot of us came out of 'The Color Purple' and went on to other things,” he said. “That was a special moment for us. Now, this is a moment for them to build their careers.”

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