Last night I promised I would take my cousin Maria to see the film adaptation of the 1982 Broadway hit Dreamgirls. Maria is a huge fan of the musical. Growing up, she’d sing the songs while I accompanied her on the piano. I had already seen the film a few weeks back and I didn’t mind seeing it again, this time with a less enthusiastic crowd and one that didn’t sing along with the movie. Maybe with the exception of my songbird cousin.
The movie was better the second time around. Not that the smaller, quieter crowd had anything to do with it. I’ve come to the conclusion that the film is simply that good. Some movies work better on DVD. Others need to be seen in theaters. Many have expressed that it’s overrated, loud, and over-the-top. Others simply don’t even want to see it. I think they’re missing the point or they’re just closed-minded enough to be missing out.
When I first saw it, I was satisfied. I thought it was, as expected, a solid entry into the movie musical foray with strong performances and amazing production values. The second time around I caught a lot of detail that I didn’t notice the first time as I was so in awe by the razzle-dazzle of the piece. Director Bill Condon has fashioned a film in where all the departments involved—from the design, the editing, the acting to obviously the music—are all telling the story cohesively. It reminded me of why I enjoy movies and why I enjoy making movies in the first place: it’s all in how you tell the story.
It’s no secret that Dreamgirls is your basic rags-to-riches music group story which we’ve all seen and heard before, in fiction and in real life. After all, Dreamgirls is a pastiche on producer Berry Gordy Jr., The Supremes, and Motown Records. But fame and the price of fame has been the subject of countless shows and movies, from A Star Is Born, That Thing You Do! to even TV’s Making The Band and American Idol. Much like recent movie musicals, the movie’s true flaw is that it lacks a really strong story and riddled with rather broad, simple characters. Where Dreamgirls really shines is in the execution. The true marvel is in how it was all put together and how it all effortlessly falls into place. Cinematically, all the tools available to the filmmakers and their talents have been used to the best of their storytelling ability.
Bill Condon wrote the adaptation for Chicago. Here Condon writes and directs. His direction is sharp, yet seamless and fluid. Unlike Chicago with its jarring pace that seems inspired by Bob Fosse’s beautiful yet disjointed choreography, Dreamgirls is unafraid to let things flow organically. Chicago was almost embarrassed to be a musical in the first place by placing musical numbers inside the mind of its characters. In Dreamgirls, the characters aren’t afraid to sing their heart out. Here the singing actually moves the story forward.
Early on in the movie, James Brown-like soul singer Jimmy “Thunder” Early (the incomparable Eddie Murphy in a knockout performance) meets his three new backup singers, the Dreamettes. Backstage, he teaches them the song. As Eddie Murphy begins singing “Fake Your Way to the Top”, a pianist takes his seat, and Murphy crosses in front of the instrument and cues each of the girls to sing the decorative backup line, ’round and round’—Lorell (Anika Noni Rose) in her giddy high mezzo, Deena (Beyoncé Knowles, who is a gifted performer, even though her acting is rudimentary) in a softer, sweeter style, and Effie (Jennifer Hudson, a starmaking performance) in a throaty, deep broadway belt that leaps into a joyous riff. Murphy twirls around, and suddenly, devoid of any transition, he’s onstage before a thunderous audience, doing the song with the three girls singing nearby. This is the type of fluidity that just keeps the film moving.
Yet Condon never lets you forget that life—at least through these characters’ eyes—is a stage. This is a musical, after all, no matter how cinematically glossed over it all is. At a pivotal moment near the film’s end when car salesman-turned-music mogul Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) reaches an all-time low, he stands beside a street lamp on a moonlit night outside his gorgeous art-deco house. As the taxi rolls aways suddenly, as if onstage, the orchestra swells, the set fades to black with only the street lamp and Foxx visible. The street lamp now appears like a ghostlamp inside an empty theatre. The moonlight has now become a spotlight and Foxx stands alone underneath it. It’s as if the stage has been shut down. A gorgeous fusion of film and theatre. Pure cinematic (and theatrical) genius.
Another vivid example is the use of costume. Not only do the costumes remind us of the era we are in throughout the film (going from early 60’s to the late 70’s), but the costume design also subtly brought out the character’s personality. Effie was the firecracker of the group and many times she had animal prints and fur to point out a primitive beauty and how she constantly relied on her instincts to survive show biz. Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) went through quite a transformation from his rise to the top ultimately his downfall. We see him early on through his tailored suits, from cheap car salesman drab to shiny sharkskin as a music mogul, from chic (the 60’s) to completely out of touch with the times (the 70’s).
The use of color plays an integral part in the film. If you really look at it, the film is all about color exploring rather vividly the plight of black R&B artists trying to ‘crossover’ the white, vanilla pop charts of the 60’s. The film eloquently reminds us that the music being sung might just be a reaction to the world around them, from the Detriot riots to the civil rights movement, to even Vietnam. It makes perfect sense for the filmmakers to hint at the use of abstract color through design to help portray the social background of the film’s era.
And of course there’s the glorious Broadway score with its unforgettable showstoppers. Critics complain that it doesn’t sound Motown enough. It’s not supposed to. It’s a Broadway score that tells a story not a collection of pop songs.
Yet the most intriguing subject of Dreamgirls is the homogenization of music and music as a driving force. What’s uncomfortable about it all is how true that all is, especially nowadays with music being watered down to appeal to a broader audience (see American Idol) and sacrificing originality to music that samples classic oldies or even the occasional showtune (see Gwen Stefani). You cringe when Curtis reminds us in the movie that music is suppose to make money. You cringe because the idea of it sucks. But really you cringe because you listen to music today and you can’t help but agree.
I’m glad to hear that the film is recieving critical and commercial acclaim because I think it’s well-deserved just based on the craft that’s up onscreen. Sure it’s not perfect, but as far as this genre is concerned, it’s a long-awaited blessing. Movie musicals often give us the old razzle-dazzle but what this movie musical does is remind us of that quiet exhilaration of experiencing emotion through song.
That life is a stage.
And even though we all dance to a different beat, it’s all the more electrifying if we’ve got soul.