BEL-AIR, CALIFORNIA—From his favorite chair in his sprawling Westside estate, legendary music mogul and founder of Motown Berry Gordy appears happy, relaxed, very comfortable and at peace now with his place in the history books. One week ago, Mr. Gordy won a major mea culpa from media giant Viacom’s two movie studios without ever publicly uttering a single word of anger or displeasure about their hit film, “Dreamgirls.” That’s just his style: smooth, respectable, under-the-radar yet effective. Very effective!
One look across the page of this article and you’ll see how powerful Mr. Gordy remains today. Dreamworks and Paramount Studios, the Viacom-owned movie houses which co-produced the $76-million film, “Dreamgirls,” started placing full page ads last week in major entertainment and trade magazines***—publicly apologizing to Mr. Gordy.
The apology was huge! Something the studios just don’t do—at least not to this extent and for the whole world to see. But Dreamworks and Paramount Pictures Responded to Mr Gordy’s Concerns. The ad stated, “Dreamgirls” is a work of fiction. It is also an homage to Motown. We used many wonderful accomplishments that belong to the rich Motown history. For any confusion that has resulted from our fictional work, we apologize to Mr. Gordy and all the incredible people who were part of that great legacy. It is vital that the public understand that the real Motown story has yet to be told.”
“I’m delighted they saw fit to set the record straight because I was very bothered by the film,” the 77-year old Mr. Gordy explained to the Los Angeles Sentinel in an exclusive interview at his home. “The film implied that a black man couldn’t build something like a Motown without being a crook.”
Mr. Gordy said he granted the exclusive interview to the Sentinel because he wanted to make sure that the message not only got to people within the entertainment industry but also, to the very community that has supported him through the years and helped him build the Motown legacy; this was of paramount importance to Gordy.
Anyone who knows their music history can see that the movie “Dreamgirls” did more than borrow from the story of the early days of Motown Records and the Supremes. The film was a Motown look-a-like. According to hit singer/ songwriter and icon Smokey Robinson, the studios twisted parts of Motown’s history and then insulted founder Berry Gordy by clearly creating a swarthy and dishonest character, Curtis Taylor Jr. played by Academy Award winning actor Jamie Foxx.
(For the record, Foxx has said he did not base his performance on Mr. Gordy emphatically telling one reporter, “I got my character from all the record executives that I have ever met in the past four years. Not Berry Gordy at all.”)
In the film, Gordy’s character is seen paying off deejays, not paying his taxes and conducting other questionable business practices. Nothing could be further from the truth according to Gordy. “I started off telling (my artists) believe in yourself and pay your taxes. I learned all that from my father.
Gordy’s telephone started ringing off the hook when early screenings of the movie were taking place in LA and NYC. Everyone who saw it said, “What are they talking about? Who is this guy? This is not the Berry Gordy I know,”commented Martha Reeves, the lead singer from Motown’s Martha and the Vandellas. Reeves is now a city councilwoman in Detroit. “She was furious,” said Gordy.
How It Started?
As a courtesy, Dreamworks’ co-founder and longtime friend David Geffen sent Mr. Gordy an early DVD screener of “Dreamgirls.” It arrived at Gordy’s home a few weeks before Christmas. With much fanfare and an unprecedented marketing campaign promoting the film on what seemed like every major mainstream TV network, the film opened nationwide Christmas Day and has done reasonably well at the box office. To date, it has pulled in more than $100-million worldwide. After watching the movie the usually gregarious Gordy was concerned.
“The movie definitely bothered me,” Gordy said without a doubt. “It personally put me in a bad light.” But more importantly, Gordy was super concerned about the Motown legacy, and the negative impact the film would have on the younger generation. “I clearly don’t want our young people to think you have to be a gangster ripping people off and exploiting them to succeed in ANY kind of business.” “We need role models today” said Gordy. “I had them and I know how import it is for young people to have them.”
“Motown is a musical institution. It’s an institution for all people to look up to, to try to understand how it happened, why it happened and understand the truth of what it was. I was very upset about that—more than about me being depicted as a slick crook, hustler who cheated the government and everyone else he came in contact with.”
If you think Gordy was bothered, wait until you talk to his Motown family and friends. Despite differences and legal squabbles with some over the years, they remain fiercely loyal to Gordy and he to them. Evidence of that, many of them have come out fighting for the man they affectionately called, “The Chairman” including the wildly successful songwriting team Holland Dozier Holland who were responsible for many of Motown’s mega hits including, “Stop in the Name of Love,” “Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch” and Marvin Gaye’s, “How Sweet It Is.” For decades, Holland, Dozier, Holland had a beef with the boss. But when “Dreamgirls” arrived in the theatres, the songwriting team rushed to National Public Radio defending Mr. Gordy and the real Motown story. “They were very upset, “ Gordy said.”
After all, it was Gordy who first signed the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Mary Wells, The Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Commodores just to name a few. And it was Gordy who crafted and catapulted their careers helping them hone their talents and skills launching some of them into superstardom. His gift for identifying musical talent, along with the careful management of his artists’ public image, made Motown a national and international success.
Smokey Robinson Gets Heated
“Berry Gordy created something with his dream that allowed a lot of other dreams to come true and he did it with integrity and he did it with honesty,” said Smokey Robinson.
Robinson was so insulted about Gordy’s depiction in “Dreamgirls,” he took to the airwaves slamming the film calling it “a disgrace.” He also led the charge demanding the studios apologize to Mr. Gordy immediately. Robinson was so offended by what he called “false information and negativity.”
“Smokey was out of control,” said Gordy. “I had to hold him back. I said man, what about your career?” He said, “I don’t give a damn. This is World War III.” “It made me feel good, but Smokey is not one of those guys who gets mad like that. He’s a peaceable nice guy. What shocked me about Smokey was his determination to go down in flames for me. I had to say to Smokey, don’t worry about me. I can handle me.”
Yes, Berry Gordy can handle himself. For years, he fought battle after battle protecting his good name and the Motown legacy and he’s won every time. “I was used to having people say things, write things and do things and I would fight them all the time and I would always win. But with Dreamworks and Paramount, this was different. They were my friends and I didn’t want to fight.”
How It Was Resolved?
Gordy was and remains close with the people who produced the “Dreamgirls” movie. He has a history with Paramount Pictures and Dreamworks. In the 70’s, Gordy and Paramount produced “Lady Sings the Blues” which garnered five Academy Award nominations including best actress for Motown superstar Diana Ross. The film also featured Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor. Soon after, Gordy produced and directed “Mahogany.”
Dreamworks Co-founder David Geffen and Gordy have been friends for forty years. They’ve been friendly competitors, so much so that Geffen wrote liner notes on the cover of Gordy’s 1994 autobiography “To Be Loved.” In it, he called Gordy “a great visionary who changed the American music scene.”
Gordy believes in the truth. And the truth is, despite the horrible depiction of him in the “Dreamgirls,” Gordy did like the costumes for the film and the music. “I actually enjoyed the songs, the staging and the flashiness of it.” I hated the character of me. If it had not been me, I probably would have enjoyed it as a story they were trying to tell. I think that’s what they were doing… telling the story of a villain. They had to have a villain in the piece. What better villain than the person in charge?”
In the end, it should come as no surprise that Berry Gordy got what he wanted and deserved: A full fledged public apology.
“I have to applaud them for setting the record straight. And they said the Motown story has yet to be told, and we do have much to tell.” said Gordy.
So when can we expect the real Motown Story? “It’s gonna come in a lot of different forms because “The Motown Story” is a big, big story,” Gordy added. “The trials and tribulations of Motown is unbelievable—even to me.”
Berry Gordy was clear about all the things that matter in his life: truth, honor, family, and solid trusting relationships. At this point, he’s all about being happy, healthy and having peace of mind.
With the “Dreamgirls” apology on the record, the Motown story in the works, life for Mr. Gordy is good. Real good! With that settled, he leans back in his favorite chair and lets out that signature Gordy laugh. He’s back to being happy again because the Motown legacy he created lives untarnished!!