Saturday, December 30, 2006

Dreamgirls

I couldn’t imagine a movie based on that old chestnut, Dreamgirls, which played on Broadway to some success from 1981 to 1985. There are many reasons Dreamgirls never made it to the movies; one of those important reasons was that most musicals look stupid when the performers sing in the streets a la West Side Story. I couldn’t imagine that the producers and director would find a way to make this all work, and I couldn’t imagine that I’d want to see another badly adapted musical up on the big screen. That is, I couldn’t imagine it until I saw who was in the cast.

And what a cast. Jamie Foxx, right out of “Ray.” Eddie Murphy in a serious role as a seriously-approaching has-been soul singer. Beyonce’ Knowles in a break-it or make-it part. They’re all simply fabulous.

The story, certainly inspired by the Supremes, involves three girls from Chicago who join a talent show at the Apollo in search of fame and fortune. They don’t win the contest, but their talents are spotted by Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a car salesman trying to break into the music business. Along the way, Curtis makes a few changes in the group, including sanitizing their music and replacing the more robust of the three with someone a little thinner but far less talented.

Jamie Foxx is really interesting to watch in this role. He’s surprisingly bland in the beginning, giving more showy personalities like Eddie Murphy the entire spotlight. But farther into the movie we see more of the real Curtis. It’s a supremely subtle characterization that is worthy of Foxx’s talents.

And speaking of talent, I don’t think we’ve really seen all that Eddie Murphy can offer until now. His performance is funny yet tragic, and he plays all the nuances of a James Brown-like soul singer who tries to adapt to the changing times, grabbing life as if each second were his last. It’s a performance worthy of the Academy’s notice.

There are several moments in this film that just amaze. In my viewing, spontaneous applause erupted several times, especially when newcomer (and American Idol cast-off) Jennifer Hudson sprang into song. Her rendition of the original play’s And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going is a show stopper if ever there was one. Hudson is a true talent and has just been discovered.

But much of the film’s successful ability to tell this story is due to director Bill Condon and how he set up the musical numbers. Rather than show people singing in unnatural places, he set up almost every number on a stage of some sort, a believable place for a song. And if he didn’t start the song there, at least it ended up there. Many of his transitions, particularly the ones that showed the time change from the 1960’s to the 1970’s, didn’t fare as well, and were jarring.

The one major problem I have with Dreamgirls is, well, the music. A musical will be judged successful, whether or not you have a great book and a marvelous cast, on the tunes. And this musical never had the hummable break-out songs. These songs are forgotten as soon as they’re sung, regardless of how they’re dressed up. The only exception is And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going. While I understand that the pop songs that became hits for the Dreamettes – later the Dreams – had to have a certain saccharine quality, I was disappointed that there wasn’t a keeper in the bunch. For a musical, that’s pretty sad.

Go for the epic brass of it all. Go for the performances. Just don’t expect to be humming any songs when you exit the theatre.

Thumb’s up.

2 Comments:

At 11:44 PM, Blogger SusanK said...

We saw it today and agree about the music and performances. Small corrections - they were from Detroit and the contest was also in Detroit (they weren't from Chicago and the Apollo is in New York and they weren't there either). I did enjoy it!
susan

 
At 4:34 PM, Blogger catattack said...

From UmAl:

inally, a new movie reviewed! one question -- did you ever see the play? just curious, since you dissed it at the beginning of the review.

Also, I'm a little tired of the oft cited criticism of musicals that people in real life don't break into song or dance on the street -- IT'S A MUSICAL, FOR GOD'S SAKE!!! By definition, people sing and dance! If you buy a ticket, prepare yourself for it! Haven't you ever heard of a willing suspension of disbelief? And this coming from someone who will see any sci fi or sfx movie regardless of how lame. Just how often do you see people in spider outfits swinging from building to building, or men in black fighting big bugs? I've never heard any complaints about that! Jeeeze!

 

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