Should someone win a best actor or best actress award for singing? That, more or less, is the question that we will all be dealing with for the next two months, as Dreamgirls coasts into theaters on a wave of Oscar hype that likely won't end until the last golden statuette is handed out at the end of February.
The film, adapted by writer-director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey) from the 1981 Broadway musical by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen, rushes so quickly from one song to the next—almost all of which are performed in a recording studio or before an audience—that it's almost a concert movie, and the "dramatic" bits that come between the songs are little more than padding or connective tissue.
There may be a certain wisdom to this approach, inasmuch as audiences are all too familiar with the clichés of the rock 'n' roll biopic genre, and the filmmakers know that what we really want is music, music, music. And so the film begins at an amateur talent show, where the Dreamettes—Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles), Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) and sassy, spunky lead singer Effie White (Jennifer Hudson)—get their first big break. One song flows into the next, rehearsals become stage performances, and before we know it, an entire tour has passed us by.
The Dreamettes almost miss their chance to perform at the talent show because they showed up late, but salvation comes in the form of Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a Cadillac salesman with ambitions of becoming a music producer. Lurking in the shadows and looking for opportunities to seize, he intervenes on the girls' behalf and not only helps them get onstage, but gets them a gig as back-up singers for Jimmy "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy), an R&B star modelled on the likes of James Brown, Otis Redding and Little Richard—though Jimmy claims they stole his gimmicks!
For the first hour or so, you could be forgiven for missing the fact that Dreamgirls is an actual musical, and not just a drama about musicians; virtually every song is performed on a stage of some sort, and the one fleeting exception—as Curtis sings a line or two from "Steppin' to the Bad Side" while raising the money with which to bribe deejays into playing Jimmy's music—is quickly forgotten, as we cut to another concert and Jimmy keeps the song going for another minute or two.
It isn't until almost the exact middle of the film that a character breaks into song in the middle of a dramatic scene, and the effect is somewhat jarring. What's more, when these characters break into song, there is often nothing particularly interesting or creative about the lyrics; it is as though the composers took simple dialogue and tried to jazz it up with music—but instead of adding something to the scene, the music just underscores how banal the words in those scenes were to begin with.
Both times I have seen the film, sections of the audience have burst into laughter at these points, even though the songs are usually about some character's feelings of betrayal. But other sections of the audience have cheered and applauded, especially when Effie belts out "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going"—a brash, loud and increasingly intense showstopper in which Effie goes into denial after Curtis, until recently her boyfriend, forces her out of the band. Hudson, a former American Idol contestant, goes over-the-top very quickly, then tops her over-the-topness, and it is entirely possible that the Academy will reward Hudson for her intensity, the same way it has rewarded the likes of Sean Penn—but still, is this really acting?
Similar questions dog the other performances. Eddie Murphy holds his own in his few dramatic scenes, but like many other comedians who have tried their hand at drama, he doesn't have to do much besides hold back his shtick, and since this film zips through the dramatic scenes so quickly, he doesn't have to hold it back for long. As it happens, his character truly comes alive when he's behind a microphone, strutting his stuff for the masses like any other singer—or comedian, for that matter.
Similarly, Beyoncé Knowles has always been pretty bland whenever she gets in front of a movie camera, and Dreamgirls is no exception. But you have to give her credit for having the guts to play a character who is told, years after the fact, that she was made lead singer in Effie's place "because your voice has no personality, no depth." While Beyoncé's singing isn't that bad, it does sum up her acting rather well.
The music itself is hit-and-miss. The first hit song that Curtis commissions for Jimmy is "Cadillac Car," an early indicator of the fact that Curtis, a car salesman, cares nothing for artistry and is interested in music for its product-moving potential—and it has an awkward, clunky chorus, which is unfortunate, given the pivotal role this song is supposed to play. The song, incidentally, is written by Effie's brother C. C. (Keith Robinson), who is deeply offended when Jimmy's recording is eclipsed by a white band's cover version. You can understand his reaction, on one level, but you still can't help thinking, isn't C. C. getting royalties no matter who sings it?
Ah, but why look for characters to make sense, or for the film to offer any insight into the complexities of the music business. What matters is the songs, some of which do work rather well; you're likely to come out of the theater humming one or two of them, and you might even feel the urge to get the soundtrack. But this isn't anywhere near the year's best picture; like the "soulless" music Curtis pushes on an unsuspecting public, this shallow film is a product to be sold, pure and simple.Discussion starters
- Do any of these characters change over the course of the film? If so, which ones? What do we learn from the way they change
- Is Curtis a bad man from the beginning, or does he become a bad man? Does the film give us any reason to believe that he has been, or will be, redeemed? If so, how
- The film often contrasts music that has "soul" versus music that is designed to sell a product. Does the film itself seem "authentic" to you? How would you define "soul"? Why is "soul" considered so essential to a person's authenticity
- Curtis begins his music-producing career by complaining about how white singers have "stolen" songs from black performers; but by the end of the film, Curtis is "stealing" songs, too. Was his original complaint justified? Do his actions later on compromise his original complaint?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Dreamgirls is rated PG-13 for language (about a dozen four-letter words), some sexuality (spoken references to adultery, a nudity-free shot of a man and woman in bed, a child born out of wedlock) and drug content (a musician gets ready to do cocaine in two scenes).
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