Michael Bierut | Essays

Cheap Music and Commercial Art

Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland and Eddie Holland
Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland and Eddie Holland, c. 1962

The movie Dreamgirls was expected to be an unqualified success, and it almost has been. A film adaptation of the 1981 musical based on the rise of Motown and the Supremes, it's made almost $100 million at the box office, and received eight Academy Award nominations. But, in an Oscar upset, it's not up for Best Picture. And some people are unhappy with the way the film deals with its source material. Motown star Smokey Robinson, for instance, is angry about the character modeled after Motown founder Berry Gordy. "Nobody was paying us," he told NPR's Morning Edition. "So he (Gordy) borrowed $800 from his family's fund and started Motown so that we could be paid. And for him to be maligned and made out like this villainous character is very, very, very offensive to me."

Berry Gordy, I suspect, will survive. My biggest complaint is about the songs. This is a movie about music, and the songs absolutely stink. This isn't just an insult to the audience. It's an insult to one of the greatest songwriting teams in history: Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, Jr.

Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland were the composers. Eddie Holland was the lyricist. Together, they wrote "Heat Wave," "Nowhere to Run," and "Jimmy Mack" for Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. "Can I Get a Witness" and "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)" for Marvin Gaye. "Mickey's Monkey" for the Miracles, "(I'm a) Roadrunner" for Jr. Walker & the All-Stars and "This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)" for the Isley Brothers. "Baby, I Need Your Loving," "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)," "It's the Same Old Song," "Reach Out (I'll Be There)," "Standing in the Shadows of Love" and "Bernadette" for the Four Tops. And, of course, "Where Did Our Love Go," "Baby Love," "Stop! In the Name of Love," "I Hear a Symphony," "You Can't Hurry Love," "You Keep Me Hangin' On" and "Reflections" for the Supremes.

This incredible run included 25 top ten singles — including five consecutive number ones for the Supremes — between 1963 and 1967. Yes, all that, in only four years.

Compared with the least of these, the songs in Dreamgirls are tepid gruel. I don't mind pastiche; a fake genre song by someone like Sondheim (e.g., "Broadway Baby" in Follies) is almost as good as the real thing. But I have to agree with A.O. Scott in the Times, who wrote, "As the cushioned blasts of overorchestrated thunder assaulted my ears, I would have given anything for a crisp horn chart, a clean drum line, a chattering rhythm guitar or even a memorably witty or catchy verse." All we get instead is the controlled hysteria of "And I Am Telling You That I'm Not Leaving." It was electrifying when delivered by Jennifer Holliday 25 years ago; now, it's such a cliché that comedian Martin Short included a number simply called "Let a Big Black Lady Stop the Show" in his recent Broadway comedy, just to get it out of the way.

Ah, now consider, instead, the real thing. Can you hear it? That great two-chord vamp that begins "Heat Wave." The lovely fermata that follows "I just have to stop..." in the bridge for "How Sweet It Is." The tense, echoing guitar figure that introduces "You Keep Me Hangin' On." The gutteral shout from Levi Stubbs that precedes the chorus of "Reach Out (I'll Be There)." And that beautiful, "Oooh...ooh" that floats, suspended over the handclaps, in "Baby Love."

Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland had 9 to 5 jobs: writing songs for Motown Records. They didn't think they were making art at the time. "I remember saying back at Motown, 'Man, I would love to write classic songs, like a "White Christmas,'" Brian Holland told an interviewer. It was no coincidence that Motown was headquartered in the home of Ford, Chrysler and General Motors. The goal was cranking out product. "Early on, Brian and Lamont were already writing together, and they were very prolific at writing melodies and producing tracks," remembered Eddie Holland. "It was the lyric writing which slowed them down. So I suggested that I join the team as a lyricist, so that their production output would be much higher." Increasing production output: that was the name of the Detroit game.

But what delicacy and genius the writers brought to the process. What amazes me most is the way they managed to create a different sound for each artist. Martha Reeves was the happy party girl. The Supremes were always bittersweet, repeating words like incantations. And, my favorites, the agonized, obsessively paranoid Four Tops. It was a remarkable kind of quasi-industrial creative process that could produce "Reach Out" (which Dave Marsh called "a terrifying melodrama" and Phil Spector called "black Dylan") or that most disturbingly obsessive love song of all:

But while I live only to hold you,
Some other men, they long to control you.
But how can they control you, Bernadette,
when they can not control themselves, Bernadette,
from wanting you, needing you?
But, darling, you belong to me.

The production facility at Motown in its glory days was formidable. H-D-H's fellow songwriters included Smokey Robinson, who wrote not only for the Miracles but Mary Wells ("My Guy"), Marvin Gaye ("Ain't That Peculiar"), and Norman Whitfield, who created the dark, towering sound of the late Temptations ("Cloud Nine," "Ball of Confusion," "Papa Was a Rolling Stone"). The writers would deliver finished (or even half-finished) songs to the best studio band in history, The Funk Brothers, grounded by the best bass player in history, James Jamerson. (If you doubt these superlatives, check out Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the 2002 documentary that brought these unheralded superstars some long-deserved recognition.)

As Noel Coward wrote in an entirely different era, "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is." Sometimes our most artless, workmanlike efforts surprise us with their staying power. Years ago, when someone like a cab driver would ask me what I did for a living, I'd say, "Commercial artist." Everyone has a computer now — hell, everyone's a graphic designer — so there's no longer any need to look for a more understandable synonym.

But I have to admit, I always liked the forthright sound of Commercial Artist. I believe that's what Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland were. And if I could toss off a single poster one one-hundredth as good as "Bernadette," I'd retire a very happy designer.

Posted in: Media, Music

Comments [25]

Great post. I love reading/watching about key periods in music, even if I'm not a fan (and it's way before my time.) It's good to learn and appreciate. I didn't see Dreamgirls, though, so I can't relate to what was good and bad.

I was listening to Vanilla Fudge's version of 'You Keep Me Hang'n On' and someone asked, "oh, is that new?"

Since you invoked HIS name ...




Joe Moran

I'm wondering at what point people forgot that IT'S JUST A MOVIE!!!!

Right. A bad movie.

For great Motown movies see:

1. Standing in the Shadows of Motown--documentary on Detroit studio musicians, The Funk Brothers

2. Grace of My Heart--not all Motown but loosely follows the songwriting career of Carol King


RIght, I even mentioned Grace of My Heart to my wife after we saw Dreamgirls as an example of how to do this kind of thing right. For instance, in Dreamgirls, there's a big song at the end ("One Night Only") which is supposed to be the big redemptive comeback hit for the betrayed Effie. That's a lot of pressure to put on a plot device, and the songwriters, Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger, fail to rise to the challenge.

On the other hand, the climactic song in Grace of My Heart, "God Give Me Strength," is really great. It helps that they went to Elvis Costello and Burt Bachrach. It's been recorded by other artists and it really stands up.
Michael Bierut

Very interesting post, but I don't think your thoughtful review will be selected to appear on the DVD cover:

"The songs in Dreamgirls are tepid gruel."
- Michael Bierut

Ryan Nee

I saw Walk the Line, and to the degree that I like country music, enjoyed the 'real' music. If not one of the original songs you listed written for the Supremes were in the film Dreamgirls, it was a gamble the producers of the movie took -unwisely. And the omission by the Academy makes sense.
Since discovering Gnarls Barkley on the Emmy's, it seems like the fake genre song this vocalist switcheroo story needed for a bit of authenticity could have been 'Crazy' from his St. Elsewhere album. It has a Motown quality to it.

i'd completely forgotten about holland, dozier and holland. when i was about three, mom willed me her record collection, including a ton of martha and the supremes albums. as i recall, i would act out the videos with star wars figures and barbies. fairly instrumental in my development as a pop fiend.
Patric King

er, make that "songs." not videos. heh. this was 1973, not 1983.
Patric King

Big Bro:

I'm doing Double Duty writing on AIGA Journal on the Fate of VSA Partners Cigular Identity and came over to borrow 411 from my Commentary on the Demise of Bass's AT&T Identity.

Haven't been on DO in a Months of Sunday.

Great Editorial, I'll try not to be to Heavy.

I haven't seen Dream Girls. The Last Movie I saw in a Theater was Richard Pryor Live on Sunset Strip, 1979.

I'll wait for the Bootleg Copy of Dream Girls.
( Wink, LOL)

Last time we spoke I was looking at the Grammy's 2007 and received your email. We were discussing Christina Agulera covering a James Brown Song.

I nearly Died Last Night when my HERO Wayne The GODFATHER Newton, Mr. Las Vegas, (SALARY 3 Million Dollars a Night) The Epitome of Entertainment covered a JAMES BROWN Song in his opening of the NBA ALL STAR GAME.

I started to Ping You, I was to Mesmerized.

Damn, I want to look as Good as Wayne Newton when I'm 65 years young.

I recorded the Interview with Smokey Robinson on Access Hollywood last week. To say Smokey was anything less than Outraged is an Understatement.

Funny, semantically the writers and producers deny Dream Girls is about Motown. At least that's what Access Interviewer stated to Smokey Robinson.

According to Smokey Robinson:

There was No Payola???!!!

Berry Gordy was a Perfect Gentleman (A Saint) that did everything According to Hoyle???!!!

Perhaps, Smokey Robinson is Disgruntled at the Artistic License of the Actors, Writers and Producers. It's only a Movie. Not a Documentary.

I learned through the Grapevine in my Urban Community in the 1970s Berry Gordy Fathered a Child by Diana Ross.

Many stated and believed that's the Reason Diana Ross became Lead Singer of the Supremes.

History doesn't Lie and The Truth is Stranger Than Fiction.
Cindy Birdsong from New Jersey with the Original Supremes was a Better Talent and more Gifted Singer than Diana Ross.

Gladys Night said Publicly on Television many years ago in an Interview. If you were a Women, unless Berry Gordy personally Laid Hands On You.

You Did not make it at Motown.

I assume Gladys Night meant Berry Gordy had the Gift of ORAL Roberts.

Back to my Johnny Maestro and the Brooklyn Bridge CD.

Doo Wop Forever!!!


The Hostile Takeover of Corporate Identity

Sorry but I don't take any white person's opinion on Dreamgirls seriously. Its a cultural thing and yall don't get it. I can't believe someone called "And I am telling you" controlled hysteria, and you are co signing that on this blog.

I love this blog, but you white folks are off the mark with this one.

...discovering Gnarls Barkley on the Emmy's
I mean Grammys -I mix the two up frequently.



First and Foremost Michael Bierut doesn't need me to Defend him.

I'll assure you Michael Bierut is an absolute COGNOSCENTI of African American Music.

As an African American Male Well Versed in American Music. I perhaps have more Eclectic Taste in Music than anyone writing on this Board other than my BIG BRO Michael Bierut.

To Totally Obliterate your Comments in Reference to my Extended Family.

Allow me to Bestow some Historic Facts!!!

Motown was certainly about the African American Experience.




Who the Hell do you think is Keeping Doo Wop and JAZZ ALIVE?


Who do you think is keeping alternative Radio Stations Alive WPFW 90.1, WAMU 88.5 others?

Ever look at PBS to watch their Concert Series or Fund Raisers, Doo Wop, R&B, Jazz???!!!

Ever been to a Doo Wop Concert or Jazz Concert. If not, you'd better understand the Dynamic and Composition of the Audience and WHO Support Black Music.

99.9% of the Audience are GOOD OLE WHITE FOLKS supporting Black Art Form.

Notice NONE OF THESE GOOD OLE WHITE FOLK COMMENTED on your Personal Attack of them.

They Thoroughly understand, IGNORANCE IS BLISS.

Furthermore, OLE SAYING.

Better to be Thought a Fool and Remain Silent,
Than to Open YOUR MOUTH and Remove ALL DOUBT.


The Hostile Takeover of Corporate Identity

Jamie, as a white guy, my beef is with two other white guys, songwriters Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen. "And I Am Telling You" isn't the worst song in Dreamgirls. But it still has no verse, no chorus, and no resemblence to a really great song like, say, "Reflections." Jennifers Holliday and Hudson sing the hell out of it, God bless them, but that doesn't make it a song worthy of the Motown legacy.
Michael Bierut

Yeah, it's true, there are things white folks just don't get about black cultural experiences, and maybe shouldn't go pontificating.

And there are things black folks just don't get.

BUT ... paradoxically, I've found that nothing will bring people together like a bad movie.

If this movie had been *great* (and by that I mean monumentally, 'history-of-cinema' great), the fighting would be far worse.


All the quibbles aside about the song itself, here's something worth watching: Jennifer Holliday performs "And I Am Telling You" at the 1982 Tony Awards. It is an amazing performance.
Michael Bierut

Thanks for the tip. I'll go get Grace of My Heart. If you want another great book on rock and pop beginnings, get Hit Men. It's all about the big record company owners and the reality of the music biz.

All in all, amazing music and life-long friends were made during this magical period in American pop music. Truly, it cannot be done again. Sort of like The Band and the whole Laurel Canyon scene of CSNY and James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon and Mama's and the Pappa's. It cannot be done again. Beautiful film as well, Standing In The Shadows of Motown. It's worth getting on Netflix. Trust me.
lawton chiles

From todays WSJ.

Joe Moran

Yes! My thoughts, MB.


Amen! I would offer two more examples of movies that got it right where Dreamgirls failed:

"That Thing You Do," a so-so movie about a one-hit-wonder in the 60s, at least contained the title track that I couldn't get out of my head for days. (Created and performed by the pop group Fountains of Wayne). Watching it, I was able to accept that it was a song that COULD have been #1 in 1964. This HAS to be rule 1 for Dreamgirls, and it failed!!!

More famously, "Spinal Tap" was so brilliant in part because of the authenticity of the tracks. Beyond their hysterical lyrics, these were songs that were SPOT ON in style and production value. (And not just the metal stuff...Tap's mid 60s and flower power stuff was genius, too)

I guess it was justice that the 3 Dreamgirls songs got shut out at the Oscars last night.

Wow, some ugly stuff here.
Dream Girls was a broadway play and a very important one at that. 1. It's a commercial success (not an earmark of a great movie, but important) 2. It first became successful when African Americans struggled (for decades) to get respect on broadway. 3. An all black cast not shown in the normal ultra-negative light.

The play just like the movie was very loosely based on Motown.
It's done in movies all the time. We as African Americans understand it's not the real deal soul music and that these were songs intended as plot devices to move the story along. Did you critique "Oklahoma" this harshly? Where those real Okie songs are just really fun, cute and clever numbers that make me tap my toes just to think about them. Who says every song has to come with a chorus. I can find many examples that don't. Does every logo have to have a swoosh? This is the kind of thing designers have been lauded for repeatedly, doing something different, like creating a readable logo with no descernable text. The music was never intended to directly copy the brilliance of Motown, but merely reference the sound to create a historic and sonic landscape while imparting a chronological cues.

Who is this person that took it upon him/herself to make up "rules" for African American movies to fail by? It was not my favorite movie of all time but it was entertaining and enjoyable. Sure Holland, Dozier, Holland, were musical titans, who may never get the credit they deserve soley on the basis of skin color. But how do we use this tragic note of history to damn a laudible production in 2007. This feels strangely mean spirited and a lot like what Black people call hidden racism. I'm not saying you're a racist, but this is the slippery slope that is often interpreted as such. It seems that MB went a long way to formulate a reason for this film and it's music to be called inferior. This is something we (African Americans) get bogged down with constantly. "It wasn't as good as something (unrelated or slightly related) the other black guy did so it sucks. What about the films own merits. If we could display the same sensitivity we show when creating a 2 demensional logo as when we contemplate or discuss other peoples culture, history and humanity, then we would begin to design what's really necessary.

One brown cent

Just to be clear: I saw both the original Broadway production and the movie. In both cases, I admired the performances and disliked the songs. Both the play and movie were written and directed by white guys, including the songs. I'm not sure how my disliking the ersatz white-guy music of Dreamgirls can be said to diminish the African-American experience, but if anyone percieves it as such, I apologize. (I personally think the song "Cadillac Car" is actually a bigger insult, but that's just me.)

The real point of the article was to write a love letter to Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, Jr. Getting ugly wasn't my intent. Peace.
Michael Bierut

On those points I completely agree. I think we just made the world a tinsy bit better!
One brown cent

DesignMaven - do you have a brother known as Musicaner?

If not, it's pretty scary. One of you borrowed the other's writing 'style':


If you are going to tear something apart, at least get the names of the songs correct. It's "And I A Telling You I'm Not Going", not "And I Am Telling You That I'm Not Leaving."

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