Sunday, February 6, 2011

Remaking Dreamgirls

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2007)

An immediate spoiler alert – if you plan on seeing the new film of Dreamgirls and haven’t yet, don’t read this article until later. I’ve seldom had to give such a warning, but as you will see, it’s necessary here. Not that anything about the film is at all surprising or unexpected. It’s famous material of course, based on the 1981 Broadway musical directed by Michael Bennett (no one ever mentions the guys who actually wrote the thing – they were Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger), and coming to us now on film as part of the new post-Chicago interest in the musical genre. The smart and versatile Bill Condon (who directed Gods And Monsters and Kinsey and wrote the screenplay for Chicago) is the director and the film has an absolute dream cast.

Fame And Celebrity

Jamie Foxx plays a hustling car salesman and would-be musical impresario who latches on to a talented but going-nowhere trio of girl singers. He gets them a gig as back-up singers to a James Brown-like performer (played by Eddie Murphy), and subsequently vaults them to the next level of stardom. But only by shunting to the sidelines the lead singer Effie White, who has the strongest voice but also carries the most pounds (the luminous newcomer Jennifer Hudson), to elevate to the centre spot the milder-voiced but more photogenic Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles). The reshaped Dreams become major stars, cresting the wave up to the mid-70’s, but of course it’s not all good behind the scenes, and the Murphy and Hudson characters go through hard times on the downslide. As the tagline reads: “Fame comes and goes, stars rise and fall, but dreams live forever.”

Although Dreamgirls is sometimes pointed about fame and celebrity, it’s not the most challenging material in the world, and Condon mostly chooses to celebrate the material rather than to risk stretching it too far. This is summed up by what might be the most generous closing credits I’ve ever seen – extended montages of each of the main performers, followed by little snapshots (which might be read as post-it notes to the Academy) of the contributions of key behind-the-scenes players. The musical numbers are often dynamite, and the movie doesn’t stint on the big emotions and glitz. It’s probably at its most engaging for its opening half hour or so, when it’s immersed in the early struggle and has a sense of wide-eyed hustle about it, but the movie has virtually no dead space, and I can’t imagine many viewers will be bored.

I Am Telling You

I almost was though after a while, and I found myself doing something I seldom do – rewriting or reediting or reshooting it in my head, responding to what seemed to me an escalating volume of errors and suboptimal decisions. Most movies don’t facilitate this kind of reaction. For example, one might like Children Of Men and Pan’s Labyrinth this much or that much, and one might come out of them with this or that reservation, but they strike you as solid, impregnable artifacts – they’re tough and coherent and if you try to scrape at them you’ll only break your fingernails. Whereas with lesser movies, you merely shake your head at the wrong-headedness of the whole thing. But with Dreamgirls, Condon’s choices and compromises are unusually transparent – you can almost see the blueprint clinging to the underside of the celluloid – and it’s hard not to respond somewhat forensically.

A key example, and exhibit one for the prosecution, comes at the end of Hudson’s show-stopping solo “I Am Telling You,” a five minute agonized outpouring of alternating defiance and anger and raw hurt. It’s a fine performance, and no question it does its job (talking of the Academy, this is the clip that will inevitably mark Hudson’s forthcoming triumph as supporting actress). But the impact could have been even greater. During Hudson’s long final note, it seems clear to me that Condon need do no more than leave the camera on her face and soak the audience in the authenticity of her emotion. Instead he cuts I think three times during the note, catching her in a pincer movement of angles. Then, once she breaks off, it seems to me the film needed a few seconds of dead air, maybe even a black screen, just enough to reflect and sigh and let it sink in (the first act of the stage version ended at this point). But Condon executes a whooshing camera movement past her face, right into the next scene, of the other women performing a much frothier, dispensable routine.

Trying Too Hard

To me this all seems like trying too hard. Too many of the numbers feel like music videos, with overdone choreography, a surfeit of “technique,” and a general feeling of self-contained inconsequentiality. This magnifies the problems of the heavily unfocused screenplay. Simply put, there are too many protagonists here. Murphy is also being touted for an Oscar, but the scenes that might make his portrayal truly stimulating simply aren’t here. His character hits a wall, gets eclipsed by his former back-up group, and seems likely merely to fade from the movie; but then suddenly he’s back in the fold, having reinvented himself in a softer vein, before drug use and hubris leads him to a tragic end. But the meat of that story, and the depth of the character’s pain, is all off screen.

By contrast, Deena’s story becomes more prominent as the film progresses, but this is the blandest of narratives, and Knowles isn’t pushed even slightly out of her comfort zone. The character betrays her best friend and – although in early scenes Deena’s good girl qualities are emphasized – steals her man, without any sign of much moral anguish (yet again, the interesting scenes seem to be missing). It’s no doubt part of the point that Deena’s relative blankness better suits the cultural machinery than Effie’s earthier qualities, and one admires Knowles’ willingness to play a singer so clearly identified as being second rate (particularly since, as far as I can tell, she’s merely singing here the same way she always does), but Dreamgirls never evokes the outside world more than cursorily, so it’s unclear what social commentary is intended.

At various times the movie mentions Martin Luther King, and at one point (rather ludicrously) Effie storms out of an accident in the studio into the middle of a full-blown riot; costumes and musical styles change, but it’s all too compressed. Dreamgirls is one of those movies where the galaxy seems to contain only eight or so people of consequence, and they shuffle round each other for years. This no doubt worked fine in the theatre. But ultimately Condon’s respect for and celebration of the material results in a messy, tentative, at times almost incoherent film.

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