Dreamgirls

DreamgirlsSynopsis: With showstopping performances by a star-studded cast, Dreamgirls soars with the amazing story of three female singers who learn that anything is possible when you hold onto your dreams.

Grammy® winner Beyonce Knowles (Deena), Academy Award® winner Jamie Foxx (Curtis) and Golden Globe® winner Eddie Murphy (James “Thunder” Early) shine in unforgettable roles that display their matchless talents. And Jennifer Hudson (Effie) is a revelation, in the breakthrough performance that earned her the 2006 Academy Award® for Best Supporting Actress. Based on the Tony Award® winning broadway hit and directed by Academy Award winner Bill Condon (screenwriter of Chicago), the Oscar® winning Dreamgirls is “a triumph” of movie entertainment that will dazzle you again and again.

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Dreamgirls 7.75

eyelights: Jennifer Hudson. Eddie Murphy. its real-life roots. the end credits. the ’60s music.
eyesores: Beyoncé Knowles’ acting. Jamie Foxx’s lip-synching. the traditional music numbers. the ’70s music.

“Well, what am I supposed to do? Deena’s beautiful, and she’s always been beautiful… but I’ve got the voice, Curtis! I’ve got the voice! You can’t put me in back; you just can’t!”

‘Dreamgirls’ is a 2006 movie based on the hit 1981 Broadway musical. In development since the late ’80s, it has had countless actors attached to it through the years, including Whitney Houston, Lauren Hill, Jasmine Guy, Usher and Denzel Washington, as well as directors Spike Lee and Joel Schumacher. It was a hit at the box office and garnered a large number of awards.

Its plot is based on the story of Motown Records and singing sensations The Supremes, all the while incorporating elements from the lives of many other artists, including the The Shirelles, The Jackson 5, James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye, and others. It’s a tale of single-minded ambition, growing success and influence, self-destruction and, of course, redemption.

While it is a story that is relatively familiar to anyone who’s seen this type of film before, or watched documentaries on (or read biographies of) musical artists, what makes it fascinating is the fact that its roots are so thinly-veiled, that you can easily see its similarities with real-life events. The fun is in trying to connect the dots and separate the various facts.

It is a musical, of course, so the music is a large part of the picture, Since it takes place over the course of two decades, there is an evolution to the music, from a raw r&b sound to a more polished disco-tinged confection. Personally, I dug the earlier numbers the most, partly because the songs were more vibrant, but also because the performances were less subdued during that era.

The first part of the picture sets its sights on Effie’s vocal skill and Jimmy “Thunder” Early’s stage presence, both of which I found a pure joy to watch. But, as the story unfolded, both were cast aside for the more generic sound of Deena, who would become the central figure. While I can’t dismiss the quality of those numbers, I found them impotent in comparison.

I really liked the way the music was integrated into the picture. There were a large number of actual performances, especially during the whirlwind ’60s segment, but they were often used as backdrop for what was going on on-screen, thereby serving as a soundtrack. Rarely were any of the numbers sung as part of the dialogue between various characters – a big plus for me.

My favourite segments were:

  • the opening concert, which featured various acts, each performing one number each. I loved the variety and the performances, plus which the energy in that concert hall was almost palpable. At its best, it was almost as potent as the numbers in ‘The Blues Brothers’.
  • “Steppin to the Bad Side”, which featured three vertical rows of men dancing at the back of the stage as James Early and the Dreamettes were performing. Although it was stylistically anachronistic, the simplicity of this choreography worked.
  • The Jackson 5 alter ego, called The Campbell Connection. I was blown away by how familiar that was (I didn’t expect to see this, so I guess that’s probably part of the allure). I was continually surprised and impressed by the nods to real icons.
  • “I Meant You No Harm/Jimmy’s Rap”, which had Jimmy Early perform on live television. At first singing a syrupy ’70s ballad that even he despised, he stopped the show midway and rebelled against his master, Curtis Taylor, jr. I loved that rare moment of strength, of sticking it to the man: he proceeded to coach the band into a funky r&b number that was more akin to his earlier, rawer days. It was phenomenal to watch. Of course, that disintegrated completely – but that’s also based on true life events, so it’s not unbelievable.

My least favourite segments were:

  • “It’s All Over”, which is exactly the type of musical number I loathe, with all of the characters half-singing their dialogues to each other. This was meant to be an argument, but it was sung, which totally ruined it for me. Plus which Jamie Foxx looked Novocained.
  • “When I First Saw You”, which falls into another category: It’s the kind of song that has been a staple of musicals since the crooners of the ’40s, but without a solid vocal to support it. Not only is the melody spare, Foxx’s timid delivery grated on my nerves.

Clearly, ‘Dreamgirls’ is a film that lives or dies based on the strength of its cast, and it’s filled with very strong B-listers, many of whom were nominated for, and rightly won, awards for their performances. But one gets the impression that, aside from one star-making turn, many of the performances could -or should- have been more appropriately stellar.

  • Jennifer Hudson, as Effie White, lead singer of The Dreamettes: While Beyoncé Knowles is frequently mentioned first, perhaps because she eventually gets more screentime, Hudson is the true star of this show. Her powerhouse vocal style totally blows everyone else out of the water. And what was amazing was to see her affect mannerism that were similar to Aretha Franklin’s. She must have taken inspiration elsewhere, too, but watch ‘The Blues Brothers‘ and tell me that Effie isn’t largely Aretha – even if the character is actually based on Florence Ballard (although it must be said that her death was changed in the original musical due to pressure by the actress playing the part). It was really sad to watch her reaction when she was kicked out of The Dreams; she was absolutely demolished,
  • Beyoncé Knowles, as Deena Jones, lead singer of The Dream: While she is a superstar now, the only way that I found her effective here was because of her breathtaking beauty. She was decent as an actress, but she didn’t hold up next to Hudson or more seasoned actors such as Murphy or Foxx. Also, she’s obviously a good singer, but I didn’t like her style nearly as much as Hudson’s, which was raw with life. Admittedly, her character is meant to be subdued and more malleable, so the verdict is out, but she was nothing more than eye candy for me. I am very curious to know how much of Diana Ross is in this part, though; I actually never imagined Ross to have been manipulated this way.
  • Jamie Foxx, as Curtis Taylor, jr., founder of Rainbow Records: I’m no great fan of Foxx; I think I’m stuck with memories of his earlier roles in ‘Any Given Sunday’ and ‘Collateral’. Meh. He did a effortless job of playing the sleazy, bold and manipulative record exec, but that just seemed to add to my distaste for him; he was certainly convincing enough. The problem, if anything, was in his musical performances. The first one, during “It’s All Over”, finds him barely moving his lips, like a kid half-heartedly lip-synching during a school concert just to get by. And his big solo during “When I First Saw You”? Dreadful. You couldn’t possibly get less passion. He’s apparently based on Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, jr.. I wouldn’t know, but it’s close enough that Smokey Robinson protested the way he was portrayed and an official apology was made to Gordy, jr.
  • Eddie Murphy, as Jimmy “Thunder” Early: It was nice to see Murphy play a meaty part for the first time in a long time, instead of kids’ fare or his simple-minded comedy tripe; it showed that he still gots it. Of course, it helped that he has both been a recording artist and has satirized James Brown to perfection in the past, because he could get into this part with ease. He’s not entirely credible, but he’s convincing enough as this mixture of James Brown and Marvin Gaye (and, apparently, Jackie Wilson): he played up the wildness of Brown in the beginning, and was pretty good at playing the down-and-out Gaye in his later years.
  • Danny Glover, as Marty Madison, Jimmy’s original manager: The man is an experienced but unimaginative manager and he gets the carpet pulled from under him, supplanted by Curtis. Glover is good at playing this part, even if I don’t find him especially magnetic. I liked that eventually finds Effie again and manages her back to the spotlight, even if this isn’t true to life (or the original musical’s intention). Effie deserves the chance for redemption.
  • Keith Robinson, as C.C. White, Effie’s brother and The Dreamettes and Rainbow Records principal songwriter: He’s a confident kid who wants to be heard, and sells out for a chance at success – following Curtis’ advice to a T to the point of betraying even his sister. Robinson wasn’t required much, dramatically, but he did it all very well. And the few bits he needed to sing were credible enough. Apparently this character is based on Smokey Robinson, but I know very little about him, so I couldn’t really say.

Unfortunately, ‘Dreamgirls’ doesn’t delve into the characters nearly as much as one might want. There are suggestions of  Effie’s tumultuous post-The Dream personal life, but nothing concrete is shown on screen; Deena is shown trying to be independent, but  she never comes off as anything but a shell; Jimmy is shown having a hard time, but we don’t know what happened between losing Curtis’ favour and him hitting the bottom. It’s all a bit too vague.

Still, truth be told, I was genuinely impressed with ‘Dreamgirls’. While it could have been better, more poignant, and the cast more stellar, the production is top-notch. And, being that it’s based on fact and that it uses real historical events to bolster its fiction (Martin Luther King, the Detroit riots, …etc.), makes it quite the experience. I must admit that my interest declined gradually as the movie carried on, but I’d watch it again.

If anything, it makes me want to explore the real characters’ histories somewhat. And maybe even their catalogue. I’ve already done Marvin Gaye a fair bit, and James Brown to a lesser degree, but I have yet to truly explore Aretha Franklin (one of my close friends is a die-hard fan of the legend, so I’ve heard some of her work), The Supremes/Diana Ross or Smokey Robinson. I might even check Jennifer Hudson out.

Looks like I’ve got a lot of music on my plate – and that’s a good thing. Thanks, ‘Dreamgirls’.

Nota bene: Stick around for the end credits. They’re some of the most enjoyable ones I’ve seen in ages, because they show highlights of each person’s work along with their credits, so you get a sense of what the costume designer’s work is, the lighting director’s, the set designer’s, …etc. Well done.

Date of viewing: May 5, 2014

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