The film, and the original Broadway musical, are based heavily on The Supremes (later known as "Diana Ross & The Supremes"). Curtis Taylor, Jr. represents Motown Founder Berry Gordy, Jr. Both men worked in the automotive industry before focusing on music, and integrated aspects of the automotive business into the music making process. Both men were romantically involved with the lead singer of the most successful female group on their label. Effie's departure from the group closely matches Florence Ballard, who was known to have a much more powerful voice than Diana Ross.
After the success of the stage production, the film version went through several revisions. In the late 1980s, Whitney Houston was considered for the role of Deena. Negotiations fell through when Houston insisted that Deena sing some of Effie's songs, specifically, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going". In the early 1990s, after the success of What's Love Got to Do with It (1993), Joel Schumacher was set to direct, with Lauryn Hill as Deena and Kelly Price as Effie. The project was shelved again, after several musical biopics failed at the box-office. After the success of Chicago (2002), the producers approached Bill Condon, who had long considered an adaptation his dream project.
Jamie Foxx initially declined to play Curtis Taylor, Jr. because the salary offered was insufficient. Denzel Washington was offered the part after Foxx, but declined because he can't sing. Once Beyoncé and Eddie Murphy were attached to the production, Foxx rethought his decision and accepted the role.
Effie walks in with an album on "Rainbow Records," Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Great March To Freedom," recorded in Detroit, June 23, 1963. This is one of the few real record covers in the movie. It was released as Gordy 906, a Motown label.
During the Christmas party scene, Teddy Campbell is listening outside the room where Deena, Curtis, Michelle, C.C., Jimmy, and Lorrell are listening to the recording of "Patience." Curtis's Aunt Ethel tells Teddy to get back to the party. Teddy answers, "I'm waiting for Deena." This is a reference to the close friendship between Michael Jackson and Diana Ross.
Loretta Devine, who plays the jazz singer in the wake scene, created the role of Lorrell Robinson in the original Broadway production in 1981. Hinton Battle, who plays Curtis' aide Wayne, was also a replacement for the role of James "Thunder" Early in the original production.
The character "Effie" was originally created for Nell Carter in 1978, when the original stage show was in its experimental stages as "Project Number 9." Audio tapes of Carter rehearsing numbers such as "One Night Only" still exist in bootleg form and are constantly recirculated.
In one scene, Curtis forces the Dreams to record "Heavy" as a riot rages outside in the streets of Detroit. This is a references to the 1967 Detroit riot, during which Motown's studios remained semi-operational.
When The Dreams stand in front of a huge replica of their first album, "Meet The Dreams," the cover art is an almost identical replica of The Supremes 1965 album "More Hits by the Supremes." The photos of The Dreams on that cover are nearly identical poses from The Supremes 1966 album "The Supremes A Go-Go."
When Curtis tells the girls that they're going to be their own act, he says that he's gotten Jolly Jenkins to do their choreography. This is a reference to Cholly Atkins, the famous tap-dancer (part of the tap-dancing duo of Coles and Atkins), who did most of the choreography for The Supremes.
The original Broadway production of opened at the Imperial Theater on December 20, 1981, ran for 1,521 performances, and was nominated for the 1982 Tony Awards for Best Musical and Score, and won for the Best Book of a Musical.
Obba Babatundé, who portrayed C.C. White in the original stage version, turned down an offer to audition for the role of Marty Madison because he disapproved of the changes the film adaptation made to the original musical.
The film was originally planned to be a Warner Brothers release. In the early 2000s, DreamWorks was brought on-board as the U.S. distributor, with Warner Brothers initially retaining international rights. When the budget was revealed, Warner balked, and left the film, to be replaced by Paramount Pictures. During pre-production, Viacom, parent of Paramount, purchased DreamWorks, making the film wholly owned by Paramount, before it was released.
When James "Thunder" Early asks his band mates "Who was the first singer to start wearing shiny clothes?", one responds "Little Richard." The responder was Jimmy's piano player, who came on-stage to sit in for Jimmy when he first taught the Dreamettes the parts for "Fake your way to the top."