Monday, December 24, 2012

Movie Musicals That Got It Right (Mostly): Dreamgirls

Many were probably expecting that my next critique would be of RENT, the movie musical bomb of 2004.  I do intend to critique RENT, but have been slowed by the fact that I've never seen the movie, nor have much desire to see it.  Despite seeing the stage production in London with the original Mark and Roger, I have never been a fan.  Besides, why have negativity so close to the holidays?  I decided therefore to look at a movie musical that works pretty well: Dreamgirls.

I should state upfront that I have never seen the stage production, apart from the Tony Awards clip with Jennifer Holliday's legendary performance.  If I had, maybe I would view the movie as a terrible adaptation.  Since I haven't, I can say that the movie is entertaining and reasonably poignant, and a decent look at the history of Motown.

From what little I know of the stage production, it appears that the movie made the Motown connection much more overt, as well as the fact that the musical is about The Supremes.

Basic story of The Supremes: in Detroit in the late 1950s, Florence Ballard founded an all-girls singing group called The Primettes.  She recruited her best friend, Mary Wilson, to join, and Wilson recruited Diane Ross.  In 1961, they finally convinced Berry Gordy, record producer and founder of the Motown label, to sign them, but on the condition that they change their name.  Ballard chose The Supremes, and the all-female trio began releasing a string of songs, finally breaking through with "Where Did Our Love Go?" in 1964.  However, one year before that, Gordy chose Diane -- now Diana -- Ross to be the official lead singer, as her lighter voice made it more likely The Supremes could be a hit on the pop charts.  Gordy's prediction turned out to be accurate, as The Supremes went on to become international stars and the most successful all-female group.  Yet the change never sat well with Ballard, whose style was more "soulful" (read "black"), and in 1967, Gordy removed her from The Supremes.  She would be replaced by Cindy Birdsong.  Diana Ross continued to front the group until 1970 before finally going solo.

Change a few names, and you more of less have the film version of Dreamgirls (2006).  In the early 1960s, Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) is the lead singer of The Dreamettes, with her friends Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Ross) and Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles) providing back-up vocals.  After failing to win a major competition, The Dreamettes get a break when Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a used car salesman and aspiring music mogul, offers to be their manager and gets them a gig backing up rhythm and blues star James "Jimmy" Thunder Early (Eddie Murphy).  In 1964, after determining that a group with just the girls might appeal best to white audiences, Curtis appoints the whiter, thinner, and lighter-sounding Deena to be the lead singer of The Dreams.  The Dreams become a worldwide sensation, recording hit after hit.  Although furious with the change, Effie would do back-up singer duty for the next few years, until her resentful behavior gets her replaced in 1967.  The group would continue on without her for the next several years.

Like Diana Ross with Berry Gordy, Deena would have a romantic relationship with Curtis, now the founder of the Motown-like Rainbow Records.  In the latter case, Deena and Curtis would eventually marry.  Like Florence Ballard, Effie would spend years in the wilderness trying to get back on her feet.  Effie also has to deal with the double-blow of being betrayed not only by her brother, C.C. (Keith Robinson), the group's songwriter, but also by Curtis, her former lover.  Unlike Ballard, whose comeback was cut tragically short, Effie's story would have a more triumphant conclusion.

What I've described is a heaping amount, and it doesn't even cover everything.  Certainly not Jimmy Early's tragic fall, as he learns that success comes at the price of losing his soul.  Dreamgirls has ample material for a hit, and for the most part uses that material well.  So what else about the musical makes it work where others have failed?

The Good

1.  Appealing Characters.  Dreamgirls is filled with characters whom you can cheer for or hate, but who rarely leave you indifferent.  Effie is brash and rude, but also heart breaking as she slowly realizes that she is being pushed aside.  Jimmy Early is cocky bordering on obnoxious, but is also a somewhat pathetic person who, ironically, grows more pathetic the more successful he becomes.  Curtis is snaky and ruthless, but his goal to make black artists commercially successful has our sympathy, at least early on.  Even blander characters like Deena have more going on than meets the eye.  At one point Deena attempts to control her own destiny by meeting secretly with film producers to make a movie that clashes with her "girl next door" image.

2.  Good Acting.  It helps that much of the acting is great.  Jennifer Hudson tends to get the most raves in her debut movie role, and for the most part, she earns them.  She is good at projecting Effie's brash confidence, yet can turn on a dime and show vulnerability.  This is especially well illustrated in the scene "Family," where Effie goes from anticipating being The Dreams' lead singer to realizing, with a thud, that Deena is taking her place.  Hudson has some weak moments here and there -- some line readings seem a little passive -- but overall, her Effie serves as the heart and soul of the movie.  Meanwhile, Eddie Murphy is a borderline caricature until the second half, when he begins to break down.  Yet even as a caricature, he has great intensity and commands the screen.  Both his and Hudson's performances are the highlight of the movie, but the rest of the cast is not bad, either.

Jamie Foxx's Curtis is cagey and hooded, as if he never met an honest emotion in his life.  Beyonce is surprisingly good as Deena.  She might not be the best actress in the group, but she can do far more than Madonna's one pinched-face expression.  Beyonce gives Deena an all-American Marilyn Monroe quality that makes it believable she would develop mass appeal.  Anika Noni Ross also deserves praise for not only giving some sharp edges to third-wheel Lorrell, but also for being (in my opinion) the best singer of the three Dreams.  Ross wasn't the voice of Tiana in The Princess and the Frog for nothing.

3.  Good Production Values.  The editing is crisp.  The sets are expansive, and both sets and costumes do an excellent job taking the viewer on journey from the early 1960s to the early 1970s.  The lighting and camera work are frequently great.  Overall, the production values are so good that even the lip-syncing isn't noticeable (see "It's All Over" at the bottom).  That is not a small thing, as you may recall, the very obvious lip-syncing in Evita made that movie quite painful to watch at times.

Billy Condon, the director, favors the frequent use of montages during songs.  His quick-cutting style is usually successful and frequently creative, except when it's not (see below).  One creative example is in "Steppin' to the Bad Side," where scenes of male performers in a backstage room are intercut with scenes of the song's increasing radio play.  It is not clear why the male performers are there until the very end, when we see them performing part of "Steppin' to the Bad Side" onstage before a large audience, highlighting Jimmy's remarkable ascent.

4.  Good Trajectory.  I am probably in the distinct minority of viewers who prefers the second half of Dreamgirls to its first half.  I think the first half takes a little too long to get going, and I like seeing the payoff in the second half.  Dreamgirls does Greek Tragedy very well: don't fly to close to the sun, or your wings will melt.  Condon does not shy from letting you see the characters' wings melt, especially Jimmy's.      

The Less Good

Since this is a pretty successful movie, there isn't much about it that is bad.  However, certain aspects of the movie are clunky and require a suspension of disbelief.

1.  Do They All Have 20-Year Contracts?  For much of the drama in the second half to work, you have to believe that Curtis somehow has absolute control over not just Deena, but also the other Dreams, C.C, and Jimmy.  With Deena, it makes sense because they are married, but really, the others never thought of letting their contracts expire and signing with another label?  Jimmy has been bored and frustrated for years, but he never looked for an out in his contract?  Lorrell has never thought of going solo with a different label?  Curtis is the only music mogul in existence?

2.  The Quick Cutting Does Not Always Convey What Billy Condon Wants It to Convey.  As mentioned above, Condon relies upon quick cutting back and forth to convey a lot of information.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes it really doesn't.  One example of the latter is the scene where Curtis gets the idea of turning the girls into their own group.  He is watching Jimmy's performance at a white-only club slowly devolve into a train wreck.  But lo and behold, Curtis sees one or two club members smiling in Deena's direction, so that gives him the idea to break the girls off into their own group?  That seems like an awfully risky move based on vague evidence that the girls would be better received.  It would have been better if the white club owner sitting with Curtis made a remark like: "Now those girls, they have appeal.  I would pay to see them."

Another example occurs at the very end, when Curtis sees Magic sitting with Effie's family at the Dreams' final performance and rushes down from his mezzanine seat to get a closer look.  This is probably more of a staging problem than anything else.  First, how could Curtis even see her from up there?  Second, what about her appearance at the performance would get him so alarmed so quickly?  "There's a strange little girl sitting with Effie's family.  Hmm, I was Effie's lover about 10 years ago, and from 200 feet away, this child looks roughly between the ages of eight and 12.  'Zounds!  It all adds up!  This child must be my never-before-mentioned daughter!  Must go take a closer look!"  Why couldn't he have just as easily concluded that she was a niece or a neighbor?  It would have been funny if the girl had responded: "If I knew a strange man would be staring at me the whole time, I never would have asked to come with the Whites to see Miss Effie perform!"      

3.  Heavy On the Moralizing.  This movie has a moral -- don't let business get in the way of true creativity -- which it pounds into the ground.  The most disconcerting example involves Jimmy.  Early on, Jimmy seeks to cross-over from the R&B charts to the pop charts with Curtis's help.  When Curtis tries to sell Jimmy's manager, Marty (Danny Glover), on the appeal of "Cadillac Car," Marty responds stubbornly: "Well Jimmy's fans like taking the bus."  When Jimmy finally decides to make Curtis his manager, Marty responds: "I love you, Jimmy, but you can't have it all."  And indeed, the movie shows that Jimmy can't have it all, as he is forced to give up his electric tunes in favor of staid, bland ballads.  (Again, this really only works if Jimmy has absolutely no ability to sign with another label.)  So what lesson can we draw from this?  Don't try to increase your appeal and commercial viability, Jimmy, because as a black man, you will never, ever be able to enjoy your success.  Know your place, which is on the bus, not in a Cadillac car (or a Mercedes Benz, going by a later number).

Yet if we embrace this message with respect to all of the characters, that means we should frown upon Curtis's efforts to make black performers commercially successful.  But in fact, there is a lot to admire about Curtis's vision, about his desire to prevent black performers' work from being co-opted by white performers.  You could argue that he takes it too far, but it was not wrong of him to try.  Same with Jimmy -- it was not wrong of him to aim for greater success, even if it took him places he never desired.        

4.  The Songs... Hmm.  You'll note that even though this is a musical, until this point, I have not really gone into the songs.  The songs are basically good, including the signature song "And I Am Telling You."  They tell the story and get the job done.  Yet apart from "And I Am Telling You," "Dreamgirls," and a couple of others, I can't say they're very memorable.  For the film version, it appears that Condon removed some songs from the stage version and added some songs ("Love You I Do," "Patience," "Listen") in an effort to bolster the Effie-Curtis connection and give Deena's character more heft.  It was a wise decision to add those songs for those reasons, but one that did not fully work.  While "Love You I Do" establishes Effie's love for Curtis, I never believed that it was anything but one-sided.  Maybe that was the point, but that just makes "And I Am Telling You" harder to understand.  It is basically a lengthy number directed at Curtis, trying to make him remember how good it once was between them.  The lyrics imply a much deeper connection than we have, up to this point, seen between them.

We're part of the same place
We're part of the same time
We both have the same blood
We both share the same mind.

And time and time
We have so much to share
No, no, no, no, no, no
I'm not waking up tomorrow morning
And finding that there's nobody there.

What is the point of Effie singing this song to Curtis if she has nothing apart from her own delusions?  The musical already has a song that establishes how deluded and on-the-outs Effie is with everyone -- "It's All Over."  So I think we're supposed to believe that there was something between Curtis and Effie -- we just didn't see it.

Because we never see the connection, "And I Am Telling You" feels like the most out-of-place song in the movie.  Yes, I know that's heretical to say.  I still enjoy it for all of the reasons it should be enjoyed, and Jennifer Hudson does the song proud.  But besides the fact that it suggests a connection that we haven't seen, the song's style also seems out-of-place for that era -- which it is.

But at least "And I Am Telling You" is fairly unique, unlike too many other numbers.  After a while, the songs start to have a sameness about them.  "Listen" sounds a lot like "Patience"; "Love You I Do" sounds a little like "Move"; even "I Am Changing" sounds somewhat like "And I Am Telling You."  And maybe I don't have the best musical ear, but I don't see why pop-chart-friendly "Cadillac Car"'s hook is so much more memorable than the hook for R&B "Fake Your Way to the Top."  I find myself remembering "Fake Your Way to the Top" much better: "You can fake your way to the top, round and around!"

That said, I love both versions of "One Night Only."  I realize I'm supposed to be contemptuous of the soulless disco version performed by The Dreams; that would be a lot easier if it weren't so darn fun to watch.  Everyone seems to be getting into it.


So while Dreamgirls is not a perfect movie musical, it does a lot right.  It has an interesting story, a lot of interesting characters, some really good singing, and strong production values.  If it's a little too strained in some places and a little to sleek in others, it is still quite successful on the whole.  That makes it one of my favorite recent movie musicals.



  1. Even though I did like yous postings about other musical movies, I have been visiting your site/blog since the opening of the Les Mizzz in the US(well..I just assumed that you are in tue US), hoping to read your reviews!

    It surely is somewhat odd that I leave this comment on your posting about Dream Girls, because, one I didn't like the movie or the OST of Dream Girls, with the exception of "Listen". The movie didn't really hit me emotionally, which made me not to pursue anymore with the theater piece.

    Anyhow! Have you seen Les Mizzz yet? :) I am very interested in reading your review on that. For me, I was DISAPPOINTED with the singings(A LOT), but need to admit how admirable the actings were. I just cried during the whole movie, thinking about the scenes in Les Miz book that I read before watching. I was exhausted by the end of the movie! What did you think of the movie!?? I am looking forward to seeing your posting on the movie!!

    1. Hi Lily S,

      I'm working on the review right now. Hope to have it out sometime tonight (my time).

    2. Hahah, I totally did not intend to push you with the posting. :). But thanks for posting it and I did really enjoy reading it! I realized i missed a lot of things that you noticed during the movie!