Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Review: Dreamgirls

When I was in high school I sat next to the captain of the football team in home room. He was a jock, for sure - stocky, with broad shoulders and little brains - but a nice guy, jovial and very easy-going. We'd talk from time to time, sharing quick conversations before class began. He was just friendly enough to keep it from being awkward, just funny enough to keep things interesting. When Christmas time rolled around our sophomore year, he wore a big Santa hat that pushed his red hair out at all different ends and matched the color of his freckles. He turned to me and asked, "Did you put up your tree yet?" No, I replied. I'm a jew. He looked at me puzzled, his right eyebrow cocked as if he didn't know what I had meant. "So you don't have a tree?" Nope, I responded cooly. "What about lights, do you put up any lights?" No, I repeated. Jews don't put up lights. "You gotta have lights," he said, "for Santa!" No, I said a forth time, wondering if he was just pulling my leg or if he was actually being serious. Jews don't put up lights. "Well how do you celebrate the birth of the lord Jesus Christ, then?" he asked. I sat there a bit stunned for a second before replying, I go to the movies.

Every jew celebrates Christmas at the movies. Though it would appear to be out of convience (considering everything else on earth is closed), it's actually a tradition, one that has lasted for generations and probably dates back to the golden age of the nickelodeon. While the rest of the world is opening presents and sucking down egg-nog, we kosher children flock to see films. As a movie buff, it's one tradition that I admire and anticipate. In fact, if I don't see a movie on Christmas, I get angry, uppity and annoyed. It's the equivalent of a Christian family forsaking the tree - it just doesn't feel like Christmas.
Looking back, however, I can't say that Christmas times makes for memorable movie-going experiences. In fact, I can only remeber a select handful of the films I've seen on Christmas day, most of which were mildly entertaining (Mars Attacks!, Bad Santa), or piddling crap (Man on the Moon) . Hollywood generally doesn't leave much options for the jews of suburbia come December 25th. While most of the Oscar-buzz pictures are still relegated to art houses in NY/LA, your average cinema generally offers a handful of holiday themed, family-friendly affairs or non-spectacular, soft-R rated thrillers. Throw in a biopic and a Ben Stiller comedy and you've got a good idea of what's going to be playing at a theater near you this holiday season.

This year was no different. With Children of Men in limited release and Pan's Labarynth set for December 29th (expect reviews of each shortly), I lost out on all the pictures I asked for this Christmas. My family decided they were going to see Dreamgirls whether I liked or not, so I was stuck. It's not like I wasn't going to see something, I mean... it's Christmas.

Originally I had understood that Dreamgirls was a biopic based on the life and times of Diana Ross and the Supremes. I understood that it starred Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, Beyonce and some girl from American Idol that I didn't care about, and was directed by Bill Condon, who did Kinsey, Gods and Monsters, and a few other films I didn't care about. In fact, I didn't care about any of it - there's nothing that irks me more than musical biopics (I'll say it - Ray sucked), and this seemed to me like the lowest of the low.
However, the film is not a biopic, it's strictly a musical. It takes it root from a broadway show of the same name that premiered in 1981 starring Loretta Devine. While comparisons to the biography of the Supremes are fitting, the characters in the film are original and seem to be extrapolated from a variety of African-American musicians from the past fifty years.

That being said, I was happy it was not a biopic. I can't stand that shit. But cinematic adaptations of broadway shows are often even more disasterous than films with impersonations of famous people. (Anyone remember last years horrid Broadway-style remake of Mel Brooks The Producers? I didn't think so.) It's easy for Hollywood to match the bright lights, glitz and glamor of Broadway, but very difficult to recreate the spirit of the stage. Live performances are engaging on a whole nother level, one that the cinematic performance very rarely captures. Something is ultimately lost in the transition from B'way to the big screen, and Dreamgirls is no exception. For a movie about soul music, the film has very little soul. It degenerates some of the most trying and important times in the history of black music - and America in general - to banal cliches and clear black vs white, good vs bad dichotomies. This is the scourge of Broadway in general: much of everything is simplified and easy to digest. But it doesn't mean that complicated issues have to become cliches, especially in the cinema. The film batters through history like a wrecking ball, giving brief contextual moments before breaking into song and dance. It all makes the Dreamettes rise to fame seem a little too easy, and unbelievable.

Perhaps Condon was focusing his efforts on characterization, but many of the key performances here lack the kind of power they require to breathe life into the film. Foxx starts things off with a whole lotta sleaze as the group's manager and somehow turns what should be a character who's torn between doing what's right and his dreams of granduer into one big money-grubbing cliche. Beyonce offers a big voice but little personality for a character who supposedly can't sing but has plenty of charisma.

That being said, if you see this movie for one thing it should be Jennifer Hudson, that American Idol girl I mentioned earlier. Her performance as Effie, the head-strong lead singer who gets kicked out of the group before their rise to fame, is easily one of the years best. She nails her character to a T, and offers a pair of pipes that can blow the extensions off Beyonce's head quicker than you can say 'destiny's child'. Check her version of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" that's featured in the film, and you'll hear what I mean.

Likewise, Eddie Murphy gives a rousing performance as James 'Thunder' Early, an amalgamation of Chuck Berry and James Brown and a bunch of other crack-slewing soul brothers. He adds a lot of depth to a character that easily could have been the comic relief. And who knew he could sing?

I saw this film right outside of Asbury Park, New Jersey. The theater was absolutely filled with black people, and it was great. It was like going to church in Alabama; everyone was hootin' and hollerin' and cheerin' along, singing the songs with the film. For all the movie's faults, this seemed to make it a bit more palatable. I can't say I reccomend it - there are a million better musicals out there, with better songs and better performances. But if you absolutely love Broadway and can't make the trek out to NYC, maybe this film is for you. It's got lots of bright lights and sequin dresses, and it certainly captures the shallowness of 42nd Street, but it lacks the heart and soul of the music it supposedly represents. Let's just thank god it wasn't a biopic.
A DreamWorks SKG/Paramount Pictures release 2006
Directed byBill Condon
Writing credits:
Bill Condon (screenplay)
Tom Eyen (book)

No comments: