Thursday, December 28, 2006

Dreamgirls: Tales from the Motor City

or more specifically, Tales from Motown (or more honestly, What Crossover Hath Wrought). As those of you who've been paying attention (as well as those of us who remember the Broadway show, produced by Michael "Chorus Line" Bennett), know, Dreamgirls is a thinly-disguised story about the birth of the Supremes, the rise of Diana Ross and the dumping and decline of Florence Ballard. Now, after many attempts and go-rounds, David Geffen -- also a producer of the original show, and owner and defender of the rights since then-- has brought Dreamgirls to the cinema, thanks to director Bill Condon.

Dreamgirls has been marketed as an event film; in the three-city exclusive release leading up to its release on Christmas day, the tickets were $25 and you got a souvenir program. (Remember souvenir programs? I have ones for The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins.) On the Cinerama Dome screen at the Arclight, the film reads big, with sweeping gestures, generous run-ups to each big number, and performances that call out to Oscar in a shout, not a whisper.

Which is both Dreamgirls' strength, and its weakness: there's no room for nuance in this musical. It's all show and tell; we're not left to figure anything out for ourselves. Similarly, there's no subtlety in the big performances. I'm not saying they're not good; some are excellent. But in the grand tradition of the American musical, excepting Stephen Sondheim, Dreamgirls doesn't assume its audience would like to bring something to the table, as it were. And as I do with all fairytales, I loved it (girls from the projects find success! Uplifting!) and hated it (all the men behave badly! Still, we all smile! Depressing!). But don't mind me.

On to the performances. Eddie Murphy is phenomenal as James "Thunder" Early, who is systematically deprived of his mojo by every attempt to sound whiter and whiter. When Eddie lets loose on stage, he is a dynamo; when he falls apart offstage, he is moving. Two observations: It's great that he can sing (No, "Party All the Time," which he sang in a girly falsetto, doesn't count); maybe he could be James Brown in the film that Spike Lee has agreed to direct? And, secondly, just seeing him doing well on screen makes all those damn films in which he plays forty characters with all variety of padding seem even more ludicrous. The man can act! Think twice (oops, too late!) before you take on more alimony or child support, Eddie.

Beyonce Knowles does what needs to be done to show Diana's, whoops, Deena's, journey from backup singer to expensive and beautiful object. I can't imagine anyone else being gorgeous enough to play the part, although apparently years ago Whitney Houston was talked about and perhaps she could have done it. Deena is prissy and proper, and Beyonce does that well. Anika Noni Rose hasn't gotten enough attention for her good work as Lorell, who can hold her own with James Early. And Jennifer Hudson has the oomph, the balls, and the power to play the mulish Effie--her pout is magnificent, and her singing voice (she's a belter, not a thrush) blows Deena, whoops Beyonce, away.

Jamie Foxx is fine as Curtis Taylor, the Berry Gordyesque svengali, but he doesn't connect with either of the ladies he's supposed to be devoted to. The character is mostly interested in his own snakiness, but the actor doesn't give us any sense that he might be up for caring, or even pretending that he cares.

By the end of the film, all the Dreamgirls have left is their talent and their own amour-propre; the men have all betrayed them in various ways, although the film doesn't moralize on that. But we get it. One of the original tunes for the film, "Listen," in which Beyonce finally gets to let loose, sums all that up.

So, yes, multiple thumbs up for Dreamgirls. My advice is to see it on as large a screen as possible, since the film was clearly made for that (it'll lose a lot on video).

Final shots: It was a nice touch that Loretta Devine, who created the role of Lorell on Broadway (check out that cast--Candy Darling was in it), played a singer in one scene. One wonders why Condon didn't cast Jennifer Holliday, the original Effie....perhaps JH is a bit too Effie for him. And let's not forget Florence Ballard, either, and the tragedy that crossover meant for many, many African-American artists.

P.S. I went to download a few tracks from the show...I ended up going for the original Broadway cast, not the film. Liked the orchestrations much more; they're a little less bombastic, and since the songs aren't top tier, anyway -- they're thin imitations of Motown -- away from the film the big treatment doesn't hold up for me.

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