Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Sunday, December 31, 2006


-- film -- all you got to do is dream...

Dreamgirls in Concert
Dreamgirls in Concert (2001 Concert Version)

Dreamgirls: 25th Anniversary Original Cast Album
Dreamgirls 25th Anniversary Edition Original Cast Album

the quick take: The first half of Dreamgirls is, by pretty much any terms, a very good film with two stand-out performances by Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy, despite its flaws. The second half is an OK film with the same two stand-out performances. Definitely worth spending the money to see in a theater, and despite the drop-off in the second half, if you like movie musicals, you won't regret going to see this one. I will say that if you have never seen Dreamgirls on stage, or heard the Dreamgirls in Concert CD, it's probably a better movie for you; if you have, some of the changes they've made will seem baffling, and you'll miss a few things acutely. But even so, it's overall a good movie.

I thought I should make it apparent immediately that I liked this film, because the detailed review is going to sound like I hated it, and that's just not true. But it does have some problems; some were inherent in the source material, and some were caused by the stage-to-screen transfer and decisions made in that process. This review will discuss the film in exhaustive detail, including plot spoilers, so if you haven't seen the film, go and see that first, and then come back and read the review appearing in this space tomorrow. I'll also be discussing the soundtrack, the Dreamgirls in Concert CD, and the original cast album re-release -- in short, the entire 25-year history of Dreamgirls in 10,000 words or less. (I hope.)

Seriously. Shoo. Go watch the film. NOW.

...OK, now that you're back from seing the movie, let's talk about it, shall we? Let's shall. Musical wonks ahoy!

Dreamgirls: the motion picture
Dreamgirls: the motion picture

In discussing this film and its changes to the source material, I'm going to do something vaguely heretical: I'm going to take both works on their own terms. That is, I'm pretty much going to ignore any stated or assumed connections whatsoever to the Supremes and/or Diana Ross (with one very slight exception, as you'll see), because ... well, it's not entirely relevant. If you think it's meant to be a serious, if vaguely disguised, treatment of the Supremes -- and the creators of the musical freely admit that the Supremes and the unfortunate Florence Ballard was one of their inspirations -- then it seriously misstates their place in Motown and musical history, as well as savagely misrepresenting their sound. That makes it pretty much impossible to enjoy or discuss the musical purely for what it presents to you on stage/screen. If you think, as the creators also say, that despite knowing about the Supremes and that story, they used several other sources for inspiration, they seem somewhat ... disingenuous. Either way, paying attention to that connection is a rum game, and I'm not playing today.

For anyone who was familiar with the Broadway musical or who had heard the Dreamgirls in Concert CD, which includes the entire story and all songs, it was patently obvious that Dreamworks would have to make some drastic changes in bringing this to the screen. There was simply no way that they were going to put up a production that was 20 minutes of spoken dialogue short of being an actual opera on the screen. They were clearly going to need to do something with the recitative and the Greek-style chorus. The chorus was done away with altogether, and the recitative was pushed into ordinary speech, where it wasn't simply stripped away completely -- with two exceptions, the lead-in to "Family" and to "And I am telling you", where the recitative was so essential to the character of the number that they don't survive without it. For the most part, the story does all right without it; however, the change in the character of the scenes did real damage to "Heavy" and to "One Night Only" and the scenes surrounding those songs (more about those later).

The changes and the characters

The changes start immediately, with the relocation of the characters from New York City to Detroit, in a deliberate attempt to make a more direct connection with the Motown sound. (One also suspects that they couldn't get permission to use the Apollo Theater and its talent show on screen.) This is a problem from two directions: first, it detaches the Dreamettes -- Deena Jones, Lorell Robinson and Effie Melody White (Beyonce Knowles, Anika Noni Rose and Jennifer Hudson) -- from the legendary Apollo Theater talent contest that everyone has heard of in favor of a nonexistant one -- Detroit's Fox Theatre did have various contests and famous artist performances, but because those are all linked inextricably to Barry Gordy, one suspects that name was also not available for use -- and it tries to connect Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx) and the Dreamettes to the Motown sound. However, because Motown doesn't work well for the sort of storytelling Dreamgirls needs its music to do, there's very little Motown sound in any of their songs. This is probably why the original writers and composers didn't set the story in Detroit in the first place. There is, oddly, plenty of Motown sound in everyone else's songs -- the groups that constitute background music, in the talent contest, and later, when we see how successful Curtis' empire has become. The only song of the Dreams that sounds at all Motown-ish is "Heavy", which is never performed in its entirety in the movie or stage version

Somewhat later, there are half-hearted and peculiar attempts to link the story to what's happening in the outside world. One of Curtis' record company's first releases is an album of Martin Luther King's 1963 "I have a dream" speech. Effie storms out of a recording session in a huff only to walk straight into the Detroit riots of 1967; there's also a vague attempt to present "Patience" as a civil rights song -- a song that would have been both seriously unwelcome (telling people who are tired of waiting to wait longer is simply not going to work well) and late, because at the apparent time of the song, it seems to be the mid 1970s. Near the end, there's a truly bizarre attempt to link "One Night Only" to the burgeoning disco era by setting a performance in what appears, for all intents and purposes, to be a gay circuit party, full of Diana Ross ... er, pardon, Deena Jones drag queen imitators. These efforts to set the time are misguided, but ultimately ignorable ... OK, except for the drag queen thing, which for all its brevity stands out like you would not believe. And one final story note: what happens near the end, with Curtis and Effie and CC and Effie's lawyer, all constitute federal felonies that no reputable lawyer would go near. Conspiracy, for a start, along with extortion.

Curtis, entirely comprehensible if dislikeable in the original, here becomes simply impenetrable, both because of script changes and because Jamie Foxx seems grossly, stunningly miscast. To the character's benefit, they strip away the early scene where he more or less cheats them out of part of their pay (with about a 50% agents fee), which would have lumbered Curtis with too much audience dislike before the story really begins. To the character's detriment, they strip away everything he does that lets you see how people might actually like or follow him. To begin with, Curtis no longer sings the prelude to "Cadilac Car"; unfortunately, this is Curtis "wanting" song -- the song in a musical that tells you who the character is and what they want and why. "Steppin' to the Bad Side", for all that it's James Thunder Early's first big song (played to the hilt by Eddie Murphy), is also the song where Curtis used the guys' anger at being cheated out of their due to make them see things his way; it's now this strange, slick number where we see Curtis raising money to create a studio and pay people off. Finally, he and Deena lose the duet at the first Dreams press conference ("Wonderful/Deena, It's only the Beginning") right after the title song "Dreamgirls", where we see just how much he feels for Deena; she doesn't quite realize what she's seeing, although Effie almost does. He simply becomes cryptic; it's not just that you don't understand why he does what he does, but you don't understand why anyone lets him get away with it. Added to this is his peculiar handling of Effie, which is only worsened with the script changes -- he has a golden opportunity to push her out on her own and make/let her fail or succeed, and doesn't. Finally, Curtis loses the news conference at the end where he both congratulates Effie for her version of "One Night Only" going to number 1, despite him, and announcing his divorce and the breakup of the Dreams (which, in the film, comes somewhat out of nowhere), where he expresses the only regret for his actions that we see, the only place where we see that he's learned that maybe you can go too far. The character's one opportunity to show that he's changed at all is lost. Essentially, his entire character arc disappears between stage and screen.

While CC is somewhat more problematic in the changed version, it's only fair to say that he's problematic in concept. He wants to be a songwriter, yes (and apparently a choreographer, which is new to the film, but given very little screen time and seems to exist only to allow Keith Robinson to show what he can do in the "Steppin' to the Bad Side" dance number). We understand this. What we don't understand, and what the character never gets the stage/screen time to explain, is why this desire leads him to betray his sister not once, but twice. CC's part is also changed near the end, as it had to be with the revision of "One Night Only"; instead of Marty (Danny Glover playing Jimmy Early's first agent) facilitating the renewed contact between CC and Effie, CC makes the effort himself, which strengthens the character. Of course, the other side of that is that he loses the ability to be the betrayer of Curtis, because he's no longer part of the inner circle at that point.

Deena and her ambition are clearly the driving engine for the Dreamettes initially. She's the one who's herding everyone around, making sure they get to the theater (albeit late), sneaking out behind her mother's back, getting her mother to make their dresses. (Something of a side note: if Deena's mother didn't know about the contest and wouldn't have let her daughter enter it in the first place ... what did she think she was making those dresses for? In the original, Deena's mother is fully aware of what's going on -- in fact, the Dreams have previously traveled to Chicago for a contest. Making this particular change highlights that Deena is the one with the ambition; it just introduces a small quirk in the process.) It's Deena and Lorell who talk Effie into singing backup for Jimmy Early. Deena's reluctant to go along with Curtis' plan for her to become the lead singer of the Dreams, because she knows that Effie has superior talent, but goes along with it, despite knowing how much it hurts Effie and how difficult it makes things for Lorell, and knowing that Curtis and CC have explicitly betrayed Effie's desires. She joins with everyone, despite expressed misgivings, to kick Effie out of the group and betray her again. She's displayed no ambition per se since the beginning, leading Curtis to believe that she's content to be molded by him, but suddenly decides to play the part of what sounds like a drug-addicted prostitute in her first role so that she can be taken seriously as an actress, and to go behind Curtis' back to close the deal. An inconstant ambition is about the only defining characteristic for Deena, on stage or screen.

Deena's relationship with Curtis goes from slightly confusing and ill-advised on stage to utterly baffling on screen. Unfortunately, the film entirely skips the beginning of their romance, so we never understand why Deena gets involved with Curtis in the first place. You would think that after having not only seen but participated in his betrayal of Effie, she would stay far away from him romantically; it's clear that being involved with Curtis both romantically and in business may be hazardous to your future. Later, after Curtis finds out about her film deal and tells her what he really thinks of her -- and let me just say that only a seriously brain-damaged man wouldn't think his marriage was well and truly over after what he says to her -- she makes the decision to betray him, only then discovering what he did to Effie regarding "One Night Only". This late scene feels totally false. It's established early on that Deena pays at least some attention to the charts; how would she not know that Effie has released the song they just re-recorded? And if she doesn't know about Effie, what exactly is it she's planning to do with what she takes from his office? Send it to CC? We never know precisely what she plans or does. The idea, of course, is to throw some clanging irony into the mix; Curtis is doing the same thing to Effie that was done to them with "Cadillac Car". The unfortunate side effect is to make Deena look like an idiot for not knowing what she's participating in.

The actors

For all that they have seriously variable material to work with, only one of the actors gives even a mediocre performance.

Jamie Foxx as Curtis is, as has already been mentioned, seriously miscast. Ultimately, it's impossible to tell how the script/musical changes and the actor interfaced to produce this deadened portrayal. The person who played Ray Charles so well should have been able to show Curtis' charming side almost effortlessly, but almost all of Curtis' charm was written out of this version. He should have been able to show Curtis' persuasive skills, but instead is written to produce a peculiarly tone-deaf agent, as when he tells Deena's mother -- after she's said, clearly disliking the concept, that he makes her daughter sound like a product -- that he likes that idea. Foxx doesn't have enough voice to fit into this crowd, and so really only gets one and a half songs to himself -- and "When I first saw you", the declaration of love he uses to persuade Deena to stay just when she's starting to doubt her place in this marriage, just sounds weak, although by that point, after several spectacular songs and performances by others, he'd have had to be perfect not to sound desperately outclassed.

Beyonce Knowles as Deena delivers a solid performance, especially early in the film, but is unfortunately handicapped by, as previously noted, a seriously inconsistantly written character. She does very well with what she has; she just didn't have a lot. Her Deena, on the whole, is a sympathetic character, and at a certain level, you can understand her peculiar dilemma of having ambition while thinking that she doesn't have any special talents (although, as noted, this conflict in the character is seriously underwritten and therefore poorly expressed in the story). Unfortunately, she loses the scenes where you see her realize that she truly does have talent; having her mother be surprised by her daughter's abilities just doesn't suffice. Her Dreams lead songs sound very good, but the only chance Beyonce gets to show what she can do musically is with "Listen", a spectacular song on its own merits; pity the structure of the show really wouldn't allow them to give her more of them.

Danny Glover as Jimmy's manager Marty, Anika Noni Rose as Lorell, Keith Robinson as CC, and Sharon Leal as Michelle Morris (the replacement Dream for Effie), all deliver solid, if peculiarly thankless, performances. CC's role, as mentioned, is essentially to act as a betrayer, first of his sister and then, in a very minor way, of Curtis. (One of the script changes removes the passages that make it clear that the argument they have outside the studio, the one that gets CC fired, is in fact about the song "One Night Only" itself. It also removes the reason for Curtis' anger at CC giving the song to Effie unless you know that, which makes the scene almost impenetrable.) Keith Robinson sings and acts the role very well, and is especially effective in "Steppin' to the Bad Side" and in "Effie, sing my song", where he convinces Effie that he's truly sorry (sticking it to Curtis is just the unexpressed lagniappe). Lorell's role, ultimately, is to act as an odd sort of catalyst. She's the one who first says she wants to be Jimmy Early's backup singer; she eventually (and somewhat inexplicably) falls in love and into bed with Jimmy -- and we never really see why she goes from "Get your lying, married ass away from me" to being in bed with him, because that entire transition is buried under the "Steppin' to the Bad Side" montage -- and eventually, possibly the final catalyst for what happens to Jimmy. Michelle's role is even more thankless; she replaces Effie, and then essentially goes silent. In the original, she doesn't fare much better, but what she does is more crucial. Aside from replacing Effie, she has a small, snarky sung conversation with Lorell about the nature of celebrity, when they note to each other that yet again, the press ignores them in favor of the glamour of Deena. She also has an important section in "One Night Only", where she both persuades CC to go to Effie, and decides to marry CC, and that's completely lost. Danny Glover doesn't have any songs, but delivers a good performance as the manager Curtis seduces Jimmy into betraying, who then later helps Effie build a solo career.

Jennifer Hudson is, as almost everyone everywhere has mentioned, quite spectacular in the role of Effie. Frankly, that she could do the singing wasn't a complete surprise to anyone who paid attention to her on American Idol; that said, she handles what's been called the soul bel canto style required by Effie's songs amazingly well. That she can act as well as she does was, of course, a welcome surprise; after all, we wouldn't have seen that on AI. She does make you both feel for Effie, who is constantly betrayed, and to feel happy for Effie when she finally manages to make it good.

The revelation, for me, was Eddie Murphy. I knew he could act -- you can't do the tour de force he did in the Nutty Professor and The Klumps without having some serious acting chops -- but I didn't know he could sell a dramatic character. I didn't know he could sell a romantic character -- the only time I've seen him even attempt a somewhat serious romantic lead was in the somewhat misbegotten Boomerang, and that just didn't work. And I didn't know he could sing. The only thing I'd heard him do before was his early 80s song "Party all the time", which let you know that he could carry a tune, but which was also so overproduced it made his voice sound impossibly thin. But, seriously, the man can put over a romantic character, and he can sing, and his James Thunder Early is a tour de force of an entirely different sort. He makes you feel for this man who is being shoved further and further out of his element. You understand that the success he's had is binding him to a style of music that he hates singing, and you understand when he breaks out time and again to try to be himself. One improvement to the second half of the story is the end to Jimmy Early's storyline; in the original, he simply disappears. It might be more realistic for him to just fade away after a performance that would almost certainly have ended his career at the time, but it's more dramatically satisfying to know what happens.

the music

The producers of the soundtrack seem to have learned from the ill-advised truncation of the original cast album; while you can purchase a shorter 16-track version of the soundtrack, they've also made available a 36-song version, which better captures the experience of the movie. (Spend the extra 10 bucks for the Deluxe edition. Really. The short version is just frustrating.)

Dreamgirls: Music from the Motion Picture, Deluxe Edition Dreamgirls: Music from the Motion Picture, Deluxe Edition

"Love you I do" constitutes Effie's declaration of love for Curtis and replaces "When I like a man's eyes", her seduction song, much to the character's detriment. With "When I like a man's eyes", you can see both how the affair starts, and what Curtis really thinks of her. After all, in that song, he calls her "little girl" repeatedly; he thinks she's immature and grasping -- though, clearly, not to immature to have sex with. With "Love you I do", the affair has already started, and frankly, given the script changes, you're not entirely sure how or why -- what little interest Curtis has shown in any of them at that point was either purely business or aimed at Deena, the latter expression being exceeding casual.

Lorrell loses her one really good solo, "This ain't no party", in exchange for an also nice, but not anywhere near as important in the story, song, "Patience".

Another new song is "Listen", a seriously misplaced declaration by Deena aimed at her husband. At that point, she's already made the decision to betray him and to leave him; why would she care if he listens? It would make no difference to her then. Moreover, it's a song that doesn't fit either the old or new sound of the Dreams; he would never have chosen it for her. Iif she chose it herself, they should have made more of a point of noting that assertion on her part. In any event, as mentioned, it's a spectacular song and a spectacular performance.

Posted by iain at 01:55 AM in category film