Friday, December 29, 2006

Film Review: Dreamgirls

For whatever reason I've found writing each new blogpost like pulling teeth without anesthetic. Perhaps that's a sign that I ought to go on hiatus for a while, or join the legion of ex-bloggers. I originally saw Jstheater as a means in part for cultivating mindfulness, but that premise is based on having some free and fertile space in your mind in the first place. Perhaps it's time for to refocus, or just observe from the sidelines, especially if crazy commentary becomes the norm. I guess I'll decide in the new year.


DreamgirlsYesterday C. and I went to see Dreamgirls, Bill Condon's film version of the Broadway musical show written by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen. The movie received tremendous hype from the moment it was announced, and as I wrote in a prior blog entry, against my will I found myself succumbing (though I didn't drag C. to one of the $25 pre-release screenings). I want to echo many of the reviews and appraisals I've read online raving that the film was great and Oscar-worthy, but to tell the truth, I thought it was good-to=okay in almost all aspects, except one: the singing. But I'll get to that in a minute. The story, as anyone who has ever tangentially heard of Dreamgirls knows, is a fictionalized version of the Supremes' Motown story, with characters modeled on Diana Ross, Florence Ballard, Berry Gordy, and more broadly a metanarrative of late 20th century Black American popular music. Set primarily in Detroit and Hollywood, the Dreamgirls film explores the ugly public and personal sides of the music industry, as the most talented singer in a 1960s all-female R&B trio--first the Dreamettes, later the Dreams when they've "grown up"--robust, real Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), finds herself jettisoned for the more conventionally beautiful yet less vocally powerful or expressive Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles). A central theme in the story is the battle between authentic, soulful, vernacular Black music, which Effie's singing, like James "Thunder" Early's (Eddie Murphy, in his best dramatic performance ever), embodies, and "crossover" music, which is what propels the reconstituted Dreams and then Deena individually to stardom and, along with their ruthless manager, Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), to tremendous wealth. Dreamgirls aims to dramatize this struggle, as well as related economic, social, and cultural struggles in condensed form, and succeeds to a point through its truncated plot and the actors' performances, but fails to do so with the very material medium embodying this deeper sociopolitical and aesthetic tension, the music. C. noted to me how many of the songs sounded like the parodies in Jennifer Lewis's hilarious film Jackie's Back, and I instantly agreed, which made me realize that even in the stage version, which I saw years ago, many of the songs were a liability in this regard, though it really struck me far more as I watched the film unfold.

There's little variation between the Dreamette's talent show song and almost every other one in the movie, which you could not say about the R&B of the early 1960s versus the Motown sound of the late 1960s or the extraordinarily rich variety of Black American music falling under the general rubrics of R&B, soul, funk, jazz, blues, rock, and pop from that period forward. Dreamgirls' chief musical exceptions mark the film's high points: Effie's two songs, "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" and "I'm Changing," which Jennifer Hudson TURNS INSIDE OUT. Her voice is, simply put, astonishing. Sista works! Her singing of the first song is one of the most thrilling musical performances I've witnessed on film in years, and the second demonstrates that she should have won American Idol (and any other singing contest she entered) zooming away. In fact, her singing made up for any quibbles I have with her as an actress (and I'm aware that she's a newcomer), and would be the main reason I'd watch the film again. Just to hear her voice was worth the price of the ticket, and--pace Jennifer Holliday!--I am going to buy the CD tracks just to listen to her again. One unfortunate aspect to her brilliant vocal moments is that the first exposes the dramatic fall-off in the script; after "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," the film lists forward towards its climax, and the mini-climax moments--which I won't reveal in case there's any Jstheater reader who's never seen the stage musical, hasn't seen the film, and doesn't know the plot--just don't really pack the punch they might.

But Dreamgirls does have other appealing elements. The first is Eddie Murphy, who not only sings well, but imbues his character with nuance and feeling beyond what the plot offers. Thunder's failure to fit in, to relinquish not just what he knows, but who he is and what gives life--and soul--to his music, is tragic, and Murphy takes us almost all the way. Beyoncé Knowles, who's been commodified five times over in her pop star career, shows that she can carry a role, and when allowed, that she can sing. For most of the film she buries her voice in her role as an ensemble singer, but in her pedestrian solo vehicle, "Listen," she sparkles. It's not a great song, but Beyoncé lets the world know she can sing. It goes without saying that the film also showcases how beautiful she is as well, and as the film enters the 1970s period, she starts to glow. Annika Noni Rose played the third member of the original trio, Lorrell Robinson, and she too showed she could hold her role and sing. When she, Beyoncé, and the replacement Dream, Sharon Leal, as Michelle Morris, harmonize, they elevate the songs they're singing, and when Hudson joins the mix, it nearly induces bliss. Maybe it was just me, but the whole time I watched Jamie Foxx and Danny Glover, I kept seeing Foxx and Glover as opposed to the characters they were inhabiting, which isn't to say that they weren't good, but I couldn't shed my sense of them as stars playing characters for most of their time on screen. In Foxx's case, I think the absence of any possibility of mimicry was the issue; in Ray, he became Ray Charles, whereas in this film, he was more transparently a star in character. He does sing as well as he did in the biopic, even though the songs offer less for his voice. Keith Robinson plays the fourth major male character, Effie's brother C.C., and he arrests mainly with his acting and his half-smile; of all the main performers he has the weakest voice.

Despite Robinson's comparatively weak voice, the film's strength lies in the singing, and to a lesser extent, in some of the performances. Murphy deserves an award of some sort for his canny turn, and if acting as it's traditionally understood is set aside and vocal performance can substitute for it, Hudson also deserves an award. I'm not sure about an Academy Award, but she deserves something--certainly a Grammy and other music awards are on the way. Beyoncé merits praise for embodying female glamor as it's rarely depicted these days onscreen. One treat is Loretta Divine's brief appearance (she sings!), and it got me thinking, why didn't the director try to find tiny roles for Sheryl Lee Ralph and Jennifer Holliday (if she'd have taken one) as well? That would have been a wonderful lagniappe. Nevertheless, though it doesn't live up to its prerelease hype or most of the rhapsodic reviews I've heard or come across on most accounts, the singing actually does.


  1. Dreamgirls, yesterday, we saw the movie also. I felt badly because I didn't see the version of Dreamgirls that everyone was talking about. What we saw was an OK movie, but not living up to the hype. Ro said, " we saw the Twlight Light verison of Dreamgirl, we walked into the wrong universe." We were disappointed in general, partly due to the hype. I had expectations of being moved by the spirit and doing a Holy Ghost dance during the movie, that didn't happen. What happened was I am looking forward to Hudson's CD, hopefully she will WOW us again, that was all.

    Big Larr

  2. I have not seen the film yet, but I was lucky enough to be working in the entertainment press in Boston on the night that "Dreamgirls" opened for out-of-town tryouts. So I got to see/hear Jennifer Holliday sing that amazing song live for the first time! So many years later, I still remember the power of that performance.

  3. Larry, I also wonder what most people saw. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't the best film I saw all year on any level--except some of the singing. (Did I even see another musical in 2006?)

    Rhea, that must have been an amazing experience. Holliday's Tony Award ceremony performance is available on YouTube, and after listening to it I was reminded how raw at times and imbued with pain her rendition was. Hudson, however, definitely holds her own.

  4. John, I have to agree with you (and Big Larr) on the B+ nature of this movie. It gets points for replicating 70s glamour, and huge points for the casting of Jennifer Hudson, who does her best acting while singing (if only that were a category). But I can't agree with the Murphy assessment. True his acting was better than of late, and he clearly lost weight to embody the rangy-nervous (and later druggy) energy of Early. However, I thought his singing was weak, but that might be because I kept hearing Cleavant Derricks' (who played the role on Broadway) version which was much more raw and urgent, and some of his heartfelt (and potentially vocally damaging) squalls during "Step to the Bad Side" made Derricks' deep commitment to the role evident. I wondered too where Jamie Foxx's voice went; on "We Are A Family," which sadly does sound trite lo this many years later, he seemed to be mouthing the words as though pretending to sing and his voice isn't audible in the audio mix. I would buy it only for Jennifer Hudson, because even though I could hear the Jennifer Holliday versions of the two key songs as Hudson sang, I wasn't disappointed with the latter's interpretation--girl gave me goosebumps. And "Listen" did make me listen to Beyonce differently. But what was up with that photo shoot moment when Beyonce is painted as a darker-skinned black woman? Did I miss something? Where was Condon going with that?

  5. Audiologo, Murphy definitely doesn't rise to Cleavant Derricks's level, and his performance has moments where he slides close to the jokey comedian of old--part of it may be that he has a limited visually expressive toolkit to draw from--but I felt that he really was getting into the role, and that impressed me. As C said to me, it would have been better for Condon to link the on-stage pants-dropping to the drug abuse, and to have Murphy *show* how the heroin was affecting him more to lend greater credibility to the overdose. I almost wish they'd have shown trackmarks on his arms, though that would have been almost too obvious. But something.... And what happened to Foxx's voice? Did he destroy with Ray and the subsequent attempts to become an R&B star? I'm not sure what was up with Beyoncé beblackened; it was a strange moment, but I don't know that anyone's asked Condon about it (yet). Maybe it was an attempt to visually re-blacken her, because not long thereafter, she has has breakaway/breakout moment.