If nothing else, the recent mini-resurgence of the movie musical has succeeded in reminding us both how few really good stage musicals there are to adapt and how often the Hollywood approach to adapting them — using big stars and big flash to appeal to a general audience that has little experience with or interest in the genre — means that they ultimately fail to fully satisfy anyone. Both issues are at play in Bill Condon’s adaptation of Dreamgirls, yet, on balance, Condon’s work here is surprisingly successful, largely overcoming both the flaws in the story and the difficulty of bringing such a stage-bound enterprise to the big screen.
Transparently derived from the story of The Supremes, Dreamgirls has the typical rags-to-riches-to-moral-compromise storyline of any episode of “Behind the Music”: The group — Effie (Jennifer Hudson), Deena (Beyoncé Knowles), and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) — get their big break when they sign on as backup singers for Jimmy Early (Eddie Murphy), strike out on their own when it becomes clear that they have greater crossover potential without him, and achieve success through a combination of sexy outfits, mediocre songwriting, and Machiavellian backstabbing before finally realizing that what’s really important is the people they love. The story hinges on the relationship between the girls and their manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a smooth-talking Cadillac-salesman-turned- impresario who masterminds their rise to the top by knowing whom to bully, whom to pay off, and whom to simply cast aside when she’s outlived her usefulness. Curtis is a rapacious control freak obsessed with marketability and indifferent to musical innovation or expression, and he’ll falsify any image or glom onto any fad that he thinks will be profitable. Foxx’s performance is a respectable take on the archetypal snake-oil salesman but little more; as the character is conceived, there simply isn’t anything more to him, neither an exploration of how he came to be this way nor any vulnerability or genuine feeling to provide contrast.
Curtis initially worms his way into the girls’ lives by flattering and seducing Effie, the best singer and leader of the group (based on original Supreme Florence Ballard). Effie, too, is a recognizable type — the big, smart-mouthed black girl with as much sass as talent — but the elements of tragedy in her story give her a real dramatic substance, and “American Idol” runner-up (and first-time actress) Jennifer Hudson has a great voice and a charismatic screen presence that consistently make her the most interesting performer on screen. It may be true that, as my screening companion suggested, Hudson is less an actress than a singer who was well-directed by Condon, but it hardly matters. Effie’s character comes through mostly in her singing, and what a voice — rich and soulful and wonderfully expressive. She makes Effie’s signature song, “And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going,” which closes the first act, such a showstopper — literally — that the movie doesn’t really get any momentum going again until Hudson’s next number, “I Am Changing.” And there’s something poignant about her pudgy figure and knock-kneed gait; Hudson has a beautiful face, no doubt, but her flaws make her human and sympathetic in a way that, say, Knowles — who is so processed and market-tested that even her flaws seemed skillfully planned — never will be. And that’s part of the problem with Knowles’ performance: She’s exactly like the character she’s playing (the Diana Ross surrogate), so carefully managed and career-conscious that when Deena decides to follow her own instincts rather than Curtis’ master plan, Knowles can’t bring any conviction to the decision. Deena starts off as modest and unassuming and remains that way throughout, even after she becomes a megastar through her participation in Curtis’ Machiavellian maneuverings. (Those who recall the drama and personnel changes within Destiny’s Child may enjoy counting the similarities.) This suggests a failure of nerve on Knowles’ part — no matter how big a bitch you may be in life, presumably you can’t be one onscreen and remain America’s sweetheart — and does a real disservice to the character and the film. Throughout her career, Diana Ross has been many things, but she’s never been dull.
The only performer in the film who may outshine even Hudson is — shockingly — Eddie Murphy as Jimmy Early, the self-aggrandizing, James Brown-esque soul singer. In his early scenes, both Murphy’s manner and even his appearance seem like those of his younger self rather than the bloated self-caricature he’s become in recent years. He’s tapped back into the manic energy that he brought to his brilliant vamping in his “SNL” skit “James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party” 25 years ago. It’s as if Pluto Nash and Daddy Day Care never happened. And later, when Jimmy’s career is waning and Curtis shoots down his plans to make a comeback as a socially conscious singer in the manner of the What’s Going On-era Marvin Gaye, Murphy seems like a much older, sadder man, his pain and self-disgust palpable.
Sounds like a rollicking good time, right? Well, actually it often is. Condon, who also wrote the screenplay for the woefully miscast Chicago, was a huge fan of Dreamgirls during its long run on Broadway and had wanted for years to adapt it for film. He was in the audience on opening night, 25 years ago, and his inclusion of cameos by original cast members Loretta Devine and Hinton Battle pay tribute to the film’s source. His affection for the musical goes a long way toward smoothing over the bumpy spots in the narrative, though at times it creates new ones of its own. Cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler’s camera is constantly moving — there are a number of great compositions that only last a second — and the seamless editing and fluid pacing mean that the film is constantly building momentum — so much headlong momentum that it almost trips over itself, with the plot far outstripping character development. The swirling camera and brilliantly stylized production design give the film zip and panache, but it would benefit from a little grit; it’s really only in the second act, when the pace slows and the tone darkens, that the story begins to have emotional resonance. Condon enriches the film by adding new songs that explore the central relationships and by broadening its viewpoint to include significant events from the Civil Rights Movement that alternate with its fictional events. But the central story is so familiar, and there’s such an imbalance between the effect of the film’s few great songs and its filler numbers that even Condon’s best efforts can’t quite correct it.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Dreamgirls / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 2, 2006 | Comments ()