The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, February 03, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - Dreamgirls

Dreamgirls
Director
: Bill Condon
Writers
: Screenplay by Bill Condon, based on the Broadway musical with book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music by Henry Krieger
Producer
: Laurence Mark
Stars
: Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover, Jennifer Hudson, Anika Noni Rose, Keith Robinson, Sharon Leal, Hinton Battle


When Effie (Jennifer Hudson) opens her mouth and sings,
Dreamgirls, the adaptation of the early 80’s Broadway hit, is everything it is meant to be, and says everything it means to say. She has the kind of soul and power in her voice that comes along once in a decade, and I can forgive the whole sordid existence of American Idol because it plucked her from performing on cruise ships and put her on the big screen.

But when she stops singing she’s like a dropped marionette – her performance becomes directionless, her personality vanishes. Effie is the wounded heart of
Dreamgirls, and in this adaptation, the emblem of both its virtues and flaws. It whips up a hell of a spectacle, and knows how music can take a big feeling and roll it over you like a tidal wave, but it does not know what to do with itself in between those waves.

The story is a thinly-veiled parallel to the rise of The Supremes, Motown records and its founder, entertainment impresario Berry Gordy, Jr. It creates a fictitious group of singers who call themselves The Dreamettes – powerhouse lead singer Effie and backups Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose). They’re in a local talent competition and in each competitor we see an echo of a famous performer from the time – that group looks like The Temptations, that blues singer wails like B.B. King. It’s a celebration of an era in black music that was about pride and polish, about projecting a positive image and putting on a tight, energetic show.

An ambitious car dealer named Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx) sees potential, and bribes the judges so The Dreamettes will lose. This is the beginning of a repeated pattern – he wants success for them, but only a success controlled by his desire and he’s willing to manipulate their egos to serve his ambitions. He knows that the backup singers for Jimmie “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy), a heavy-touring James Brown/Marvin Gaye hybrid, have walked out, fed up with his busy hands. Taylor positions himself as the Dreamettes’ manager, and gets them in the job over Effie’s objections.

Effie doesn’t want to sing backup – the movie doesn’t seem sure whether this is petulance, ego, or the forgivable expression of a performer whose dreams and talent are too big to accept containment. But the re-named “Dreams” achieve crossover success, and Taylor pushes Effie aside both romantically and professionally in favor of Deena, who is lighter-skinned, thinner, prettier, and whose voice is less bombastic and naked. White audiences find her image and voice more accessible, less threatening. Jimmie Early gets neutered too, his hips locked in place and his funk traded for ballads. Taylor’s cynicism and calculation about how to increase sales – every time he’s cornered he refers to some “new sound” he’s aiming for – mesmerizes those in his grip, and inspires them to amazing creativity even as gradually, unwittingly, they’re betraying both their bonds and their roots.

Bill Condon previously wrote and directed Gods and Monsters and Kinsey with perception and wit and a true sense for the ache the lies beneath our veneers. He also wrote the screenplay for Chicago, and in that picture delivered a decisive knockout blow to the biggest problem modern movie musicals face: they must convince us, the audience, that there’s a reason why the characters are singing. This is much harder than you might think – it involves more than putting them in musical careers, or summoning up peaks of emotion on cue. You have to very carefully create a world where music is the only medium strong enough to express what these characters feel. That act of creation must touch everything from the story beats, to how and when the characters break into song, to the style of acting.

This, in addition to Hudson’s weakness at straight acting, is where the problems of Dreamgirls reside. Events we could watch that would help us understand the progress of these characters’ self-destruction are left on the cutting room floor, addressed with one line of dialogue after the fact so there’s spare time for more songs. Characters start singing outside of the performances and recording sessions where there’s a logical basis; but they start doing this so late, and in such short bursts as part of fast-cut montages, that it doesn’t gain authenticity as its own part of the movie’s reality. And many of the performers, particularly Foxx in the central role, are too instinctively quiet and inwardly-directed, used to the intimacy of camera acting and unable to reconcile that with what the musical numbers demand of them.

Chicago
is again instructive, even when the music stops, the actors in that movie stay at a vibrating peak – they are themselves, but they are themselves at an intensity that keeps the tide turned outward to the back walls of the theatre. It’s not about volume or overacting, it’s about where you direct your energy, and the cast of Dreamgirls fails that commitment.

I can be grateful enough for the slick costumes and sounds, the way it richly paints the evolutionary steps that connect R&B, soul, funk, disco, and the other sounds of Motown. Most of the songs are quite excellent, and I can be grateful for smooth choreography and fat horn sounds, and for the way the character of Jimmie “Thunder” Early gives Eddie Murphy a well-rounded showcase for all his considerable talents and a chance to be vulnerable besides. But I can’t say Dreamgirls is a great movie musical. It’s an impeccably-designed good movie with some great musical numbers in it. But there’s a difference between shine and soul – the movie knows the difference, but it doesn’t know how to bridge the gap.

1 Comments:

  • It's funny how a lack of natural flow can derail a musical. I was watching "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To The Forum" last night, and like "Chicago", the songs match up to the performances. Zero Mostel, larger than life, seemlessly segueing into songs that match the epic scale of his Pseudolus, a role he shamelessly milks to great effect. To quote his Max Bialystock, "Flaunt it, baby, flaunt it!" Shame about "Dreamgirls". I, too, was moved by the levels of empathy Condon made one feel towards James Whale and Alfred Kinsey. Richard Lester's still kicking. Perhaps there's one more film left in him.

    By Anonymous Michael De Luca, at 9:26 PM  

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