“We’re your Dreamgirls, and have we got news for you!”
Stories about stratospherically popular musical acts that rose from nothing have a tendency to be the same. Of course, sameness is not a crime when it’s done well. Dreamgirls has many of the popular elements of the superstar genre and, the story essentially being “borrowed” from the Supremes and Motown, so it’s not all original.
What it is is all singing, some dancing, high kicking character action! Ten years of epicness in an industry that can make you or break you!
Dreamgirls: the musical that forgets that it’s a musical, rather than a movie with songs, then suddenly remembers … and consequently takes over your world for the remainder.
From Bill Condon, the man who brought you Chicago, Dreamgirls is a musical that won’t make you feel dirty afterwards. While I don’t care about the “legitimacy” of song in musicals, this movie makes each song seem at least vaguely realistic as a story telling device, if not always good.
James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy) needs new backing singers. Curtis Donald Jr. (Jamie Foxx) has just the girls for him – the Dreamettes! Effie (Jennifer Hudson), Deena (Beyoncé Knowles) and Lorell (Anika Noni Rose) are so good that they’re soon given their own act, but trouble is afoot when Deena replaces Effie as lead so that the newly christened Dreams can appeal to a wider (and whiter) audience.
Dreamgirls is a story about ambition, first and foremost; ambitions left unchecked, ambitions constantly denied, and ambitions frustrated by personal cowardice. There is no better place to examine the wages of ambition than in the musical arena, with the possible exception of the political arena or the post-Rapture power grab.
Jimmy, Curtis, Deena and Effie are all powered by their ambitions and desires, and conflict in the story comes when the ambitions of each of these characters conflicts: Curtis, managing to claim most of the power after the ascension of the Dreams, becomes the chief antagonist. One may believe that watching one man go out of his way to crush the hopes and dreams of all of his companions would be far too dreary, but this is far from the truth: some of the best songs are born of anger, and this is the case in Dreamgirls.
With an entirely original soundtrack, albeit one heavily influenced by Motown, soul and R & B, Dreamgirls is packed to the gunwales with great songs. “And I’m telling you (I’m not leaving)” is rightly regarded as a showstopper, and Hudson really hits it out of there. Casting Hudson in this role was a stroke of genius because she can definitely sing and she has very little profile outside of the movie: consequently, I could totally buy her as Effie. During this song, above all others, it was almost enough to make me forget that I was watching a movie. Hudson sells herself with a professionalism that belies the fact that she has never even considered acting before.
Of course not every song can be excellent, and sadly one of the most frequently recurring songs has lyrics along the lines of “We are family, like a giant tree”. The mind truly boggles at pieces like this, which have to be atoned for by songs along the lines of “One Night Only”, which gets its due in the absolutely hilarious (and pandering) soulless disco remix, replete with scantily clad dancing men. The point about creative bankruptcy is lost in the glitter that suggests that, for all of his bastardry, Curtis knows what he’s talking about.
Even Murphy’s Jimmy gets enough character development to justify his best supporting actor nomination. His character arc is entirely too easy to predict (a lot of stories about music, as I have noted, have certain patterns that they can be expected to conform to), but that doesn’t make it worthless. While I have misgivings about Murphy beyond the fact that he’s spent the last few years wallowing in the mire of less than sub par children’s movies, I cannot begrudge him this role. He provides something for the otherwise characterless Lorell to play off and comes out with some fun songs of his own.
Taking place over nine years, this is a story that allows itself to be expansive in the fashion that I have come to love from period pieces with large casts such as Boogie Nights. Dreamgirls keeps its own cast at a more manageable level, but it makes all of the important members seem deep enough to be able to credibly sing their parts. It’s difficult to talk about the singing being a great way of telling the story when I can’t quite get over the family being a giant tree (even the soulless disco mix of that can’t disguise the message of false placation), but it shouldn’t be too hard to get past that when you’re watching the movie itself.
Despite that one unfortunate song, it’s got many other things going for it beyond even the arena of music. The progression in years means that the portrayal of white people evolves from plagiarising squares to people in fear of “jungle fever” to fellow human beings. At the beginning, Curtis’ aunt can divide the bus for Jimmy by saying “Past here is Hollywood. Back there is Harlem. You ain’t welcome in Hollywood.”
As it becomes less of an issue for the characters, it becomes a non-event for the film. When segregation in the entertainment industry is totally out the door, the two races simply co-exist without any comment needing to be passed. Narratively it would be unreasonable to comment on this, but as an inexplicitly stated message it is conveyed well.
The aesthetic, as you would expect, is carried across the screen well, from actress design to costume design to set design. Jennifer Hudson gained about nine kilograms to play Effie, and this gives her character and attitude enough to carry the role credibly. Her performance of “Heavy”, laced with delicious contempt, is one of the film’s many angry joys.
Conversely, Beyoncé lost nine kilograms for the transition across nine years. She looks more elegant in this incarnation, but she feels as if she’s lost something in the transition to being angular. This is appropriate, because it’s precisely what she has done. After roles in such genius movies as The Pink Panther (no comment) and Goldmember (seriously one of the most execrable movies I’ve seen, and a criminal waste of the brilliant Michael Caine), Beyoncé considers this her first real time acting. I’m not sure if Bill Condon is a good director or Beyoncé a good actor (perhaps both), but he really has managed to get stellar performances out of people who are not experienced in the arena of acting.
Of course, this is a movie that manages to make soulless disco fun, even when counter pointed by soulful pain. There’s quite a lot of skill involved on the part of everyone.
Dreamgirls seemed an obvious choice for a best movie nomination; I’m not quite certain that I will ever understand the academy. It’s a much warmer movie than Chicago in that one is unlikely to leave the cinema feeling like they’ve had the very pit of their soul defiled by the corruption in this world. In choosing to treat music as redemptive rather than manipulative, Condon has made Dreamgirls into a true winner, despite what any award distributor might have to say.