I am against being against spoilers. Read on if you are, too.
I went into a screening of Bill Condon’s DreamWorks/ Paramount production of Dreamgirls last night at the Walter Reade wondering if there was any way it could live up to its SurroundSound advance buzz. I’m so often let down by movie musicals—I liked Evita a lot, but don’t get me started on Moulin Rouge, Rent or The Phantom Of The Opera, and I was the guy who wasn’t really wowed by the film version of Chicago despite loving the Broadway revival upon which it was based.
Musicals aside, so many times I see movies that are said to be good and walk away feeling short-changed. I think it’s important to avoid the pop cultural mob mentality, but I don’t take pleasure in hating something everyone else is loving—some people refuse to like any hyped film just to be unique, but for me, when I do have a wildly different reaction to a film than is expected of me, I don’t feel superior, I feel disconnected. It’s annoying being the lone dissenter and it winds up making me angry or at the very least a bit lonely. Am I really the only person who hates this?
Watching Dreamgirls, a rich pop opera about a girl group’s rise and rise, I realized almost immediately that I, too, was a member of a group for a change, the growing family of people who’ve seen this film and who are left searching for the right string of superlatives to describe both the experience and the work of everyone involved. Dreamgirls is a rare film that is supremely entertaining (sorry, Miss Ross), guiltlessly poignant, effortlessly artful and whose story is both unique and yet universal.
I feel that the biggest strength of Dreamgirls is the way in which it skillfully gets its own story across while simultaneously commenting on broader themes. I was also surprised—and thrilled—by how dizzily and satisfyingly self-reflexive it gets as it unfolds.
Dreamgirls focuses on the concept of the crossover and what that meant and means to us all and to black Americans in particular, even as the movie itself prepares to cross over from the stage to the screen, chock-full of actors and actresses who have crossed over in order to hit this very important mark (Murphy and Foxx from comedy on TV to dramatic movies and singing, Knowles from singing to acting).
It explores the popular American theme of the comeback while touting a revelatory turn by American Idol reject Jennifer Hudson—and hasn’t the musical itself as a film genre been making a comeback?
It is about success in showbiz and will be this year’s success story.
One daring and exciting aspect of the movie is that in telling its story about the racial politics of pop music in the ’60s and ’70s, it never compromises its black perspective. In so doing, in refusing to cater to white audiences in any cynical way—one of its own caustically effective themes—it functions as an illuminating portrait of American history, and will be enshrined as a piece of movie history for good measure.
On the surface, Dreamgirls is about a teenage trio of starry-eyed singers called The Dreamettes, made up of assertive plus-sized lead diva Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), shy looker Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) and innocent third wheel Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose). The hard-working girl group is discovered belting “Move” in 1962 at The Detroit Theatre’s Legendary Talent Contest by Cadillac salesman and aspiring music manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), equally green but with more vision and ambition than all three girls rolled into one. Taylor brokers a deal with the girls and their songwriter, Effie’s brother C.C. (Keith Robinson), for The Dreamettes to sing backup for flamboyant soul singer James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy), best described as the love child (‘never meant to be...’) of James Brown and Little Richard. Jimmy tickles more than the ivories and has a hard time keeping girl singers anywhere near him, but The Dreamettes will follow theirs by following him on tour.
Effie is not happy to be the trimmings to Thunder’s Thanksgiving turkey, shrewdly observing that singing backup is a “trap.” But she is persuaded that if she pays her dues, she will get her due. And it helps that her new manager Curtis was raised around—and has a taste for—women who never pass up a second helping. The girl who trusts nobody puts all her faith in Curtis postponing her big break until such time as he sees fit to hand it to her.
Curtis thinks big, launching his own Rainbow Records to release a frothy, crossover-seeking song called “Cadillac Car” for Thunder Early & The Dreamettes. But though the song is popular, it’s quickly stolen by a white act and taken to the next level—a perfect microcosm of the early history of rock ’n’ roll. Realizing that the gatekeepers of musical success in America are probably just a bit greedier than they are racist, Curtis quickly hatches a payola scheme to sell off his inventory of gas guzzlers and finance a true hit record for Jimmy Early & The Dreamettes, the provocative “Steppin’ To The Bad Side.” It’s not long before Jimmy’s longtime manager Marty Madison (Danny Glover) is kicked to the curb.
Effie is still sold on Curtis’s pitch, her vulnerability set to music in the creamy confection “Love You I Do,” which is staged as a rehearsal of a song C.C. has written for her—one that Curtis nixes. He is too focused on the big picture to take any commercial risks on plump, ethnic Effie.
Curtis has his cherished crossover hits, but even a steady flow of greenbacks can only cross colorful Jimmy’s R&B soul and sexualized stage mannerisms over so far. Jimmy barely dents the color barrier in Miami with an expensive stage show (preceded by a Rat Pack-esque Jewish comic so racist his act would leave Michael Richards just shattered) before Curtis sends him back on tour in favor of a more white-friendly show headlined by the newly rechristened Dreams—the girls finally have their big break.
Curtis’s ideas have been increasingly bold and have paid off increasingly steep dividends. Flush with the certainty that he is always right and that what’s right for the act trumps what is morally right, he bluntly informs Effie that comely Deena will be the new lead singer, and that Effie has been demoted to singing the backing oohs and ahs...again. Everyone involved persuades Effie to swallow her pride with the song “Family,” emotional blackmail set to music.
The Dreams are a sensation in Miami, illustrated by the sumptuous title song, in which Deena is in full Diana Ross-as-Marilyn Monroe mode and the others—well, who really cares? It’s all about Deena, and the group’s racially neutral sound (talk about “Fake Your Way To The Top”) catapults them to the top of the pop charts, making them more popular than The Beatles, and you know who they were more popular than. The turbulence of the Sixties is mirrored in the inoffensive pop hits of The Dreams, if only in the undertones, and Effie’s discontent comes to a boil as Detroit is consumed by race riots. During a recording session for the deliciously layered “Heavy,” Effie throws a fit. She is sick of taking a back seat in the group and feels physically sick.
Effie’s insubordination reaches its zenith, and Curtis won’t kowtow to it anymore. His decision is made.
Effie, who discovers the reason behind her illness and who fears she may have gone too far, returns to the rehearsal stage as the group prepares to play Vegas on New Year’s Eve only to be told by all concerned that “It’s All Over.” Even her flesh and blood, her brother, is on board with the plan to buy her out of her contract for a pittance and replace her with the more pliable Michelle Morris (Sharon Leal). Adding insult to injury, Effie suspects Curtis has also replaced her in bed—also with Deena.
Devastated, Effie sings the show’s most famous number, the raw power ballad “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” a song that lifted Broadway’s original Effie, Jennifer Holliday, into the stratosphere of great divas. Jennifer Hudson’s performance of this classic song is one of the most gut-wrenching, emotionally compelling things I’ve ever seen on film. So connected to her character is she that she made me forget I was watching a movie at all—let alone a musical, the most intentionally un-“realistic” of all movie genres. It is flabbergasting how thoroughly she owns this song, and how generous she is in giving it away so that every member of the audience can feel Effie’s pride and pain and love and betrayal and fear. The screening audience cheered this scene—we were all Effie for five minutes.
Deena & The Dreams abandon Effie and Effie abandons her dreams.
The distance that always existed between Effie and Deena because of their dissonant looks and talents and that widened to a chasm over Curtis’s two-timing has now increased until they are literally living in different worlds—Deena is a goddess-like black icon, put up on a pedestal by Curtis (“When I First Saw You”) and Effie is banished to the life of a poor single mother. Her daughter Magic must feel she lives up to her own name since she is told her existence came about without the assistance of a father. C.C. continues to create hit songs for Curtis’s growing stable of artists, but he longs for artistic fulfillment, warmly reflected in the song “Patience,” which he envisions as yet another new sound for an aging Jimmy. It also serves as Effie’s cross to bear—years are flying by, a new decade has begun and Effie can not find her voice.
When Deena & The Dreams have no more goals left unreached, Curtis schemes to produce an all-black Cleopatra movie for Deena to star in, the last thing on earth she wants to do. Older and wiser, Deena is taking meetings of her own, desiring to make a movie of substance and cast aside the image her husband has so painstakingly created. Effie, too, has come around—she’s singing again and regaining her confidence, which builds up to a comeback bid with the highly personal song “One Night Only.” Curtis responds to these and other developments with controlling cruelty—he pushes his ill-conceived movie through and forces Deena to do a disco cover of Effie’s song in order to snuff out any success it might bring his old lover. He is a pure machine at this point, devoid of sentiment.
Deena and Effie can only free themselves from this machine by bonding together and speaking his language, and it’s a retribution that will bring freedom to the machine himself.
Each of the girls—who have believably matured into women on screen thanks to nuanced, emotionally naked performances by the actors—were most challenged in their lives by the attributes that seemed to be their defining characteristics: Effie’s sass bought her a shattering and longlasting exile from the group and from the family surrounding it, Lorrell’s naïveté ensnared her in an emotionally stormy eight-year love affair with the married Thunder and Deena’s beauty imprisoned her in a loveless marriage with Curtis, who molded her career and her life with no regard for who she was as a person—or respect for whether she was a person at all. But each of them has discovered along the way that she is not a type just because Curtis cast them as such—each woman has triumphed by calling on emotional reserves she never suspected she had at her disposal.
In order to successfully portray these complex characters, the actors can not afford to make any missteps. Hudson, whose singing has a gut-wrenching, visceral quality not to be missed, is equally adept in straight dramatic scenes. Her power asserts itself, but Knowles more than holds her own. I’m not a big fan of Beyoncé—I would argue that the real backstory of she and her group Destiny’s Child, managed by her father Mathew, are as much a part of the film’s resonance as the more obvious story of The Supremes and Berry Gordy Jr. are. Though she proves herself to be a capable actress from her very first scenes, I wondered at times if she saw the parallels between herself and Deena, or if she were too much like Deena to see them—an empty vessel. But when Curtis coldly tells Deena that he chose her as the lead singer because her voice has no personality, and Knowles sings one of the film’s new songs, the Oscar-ready “Listen,” I was won over. If “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” were not in this movie, “Listen” would be the highpoint, an out-of-nowhere knock-out during which she beautifully expresses Deena’s discontent and her growth. Ultimately, Knowles’s acting is as stunning as her appearance—and let me tell you, the designers must have had hella fun dressing this black Barbie up in what appear to be dozens of glam period costumes and wigs.
I hold a grudge against Eddie Murphy for his hateful early routines making light of AIDS and skewering gay people, and also for that laughably transparent episode with a transvestite hooker in 1997. However, his performance as Jimmy “Thunder” Early made me forget all that for a couple of hours. He is an absolute joy and an absolute sorrow to watch and he is almost guaranteed an Oscar nomination.
If Jennifer Hudson is truly the star of the film (and she is) Jamie Foxx’s contributions should not be overlooked. His metamorphosis is seamless and scary, the glue that holds everyone else together and threatens to drive them apart.
Is the film perfect? No film is. One nit I’d pick is the brief poolside scene that finds Deena negotiating for a movie role without her husband’s knowledge. Knowles is spot-on, but John Lithgow as a skanky producer (complete with a really, unnecessarily bad ’70s wig) distracts with his flamboyance. If Jennifer Hudson, a newbie, can restrain herself from indulging in any of the camp that could so easily come from the role of Effie, is it too much to ask that a pro like Lithgow refrain from hamming it up? The antithesis of this unwelcome cameo is a delightful scene with Loretta Devine—the original Lorrell on Broadway—as a jazz singer memorializing the life of a man who had fast hands even at age 12.
Like most pop songs, the movie Dreamgirls has a happy ending. So does the 25-year-old story of this fascinating musical, which has been faithfully adapted and intelligently improved for the big screen by Bill Condon and brought to life by a group of actors, many of whom could convincingly argue, “I was born to play this part!”...and I’m telling you, you’re going to love it.
Herstory lesson...Jennifer Holliday on the ’82 Tonys.