Well, here we go again … Steven talks about a movie where he isn’t a member of the primary intended audience. Thus, some of my comments should be taken with more than a grain of salt. On the other hand, I know a teensy bit about Motown and R&B music, so maybe I can offer some insight in that regard.
Dreamgirls purports to be about soul. Jennifer Hudson’s Effie has too much of it for Jamie Foxx’s Curtis Taylor, Jr. … Taylor wants crossover hits, which he calculates will come if the Dreams R&B act foregrounds Beyoncé Knowles’ Deena (at one point he says she has no personality, which is just what he wanted) at the expense of the gospel sounds of Effie. Dreamgirls tells us that Taylor is wrong (not commercially … he shows an unerring sense of what will sell), both musically and personally, because he will sell his friends, family, and lovers (and soul) down the river for success on the pop charts. It’s an interesting concept for a movie (or a stage play … this is very clearly a stage musical on the screen), with one crucial problem: for a movie that claims to come down on the side of soul, Dreamgirls has an odd notion of what constitutes the thing it supposedly promotes. For Dreamgirls, soul is expressed via show tunes.
Now, there is nothing wrong with show tunes … they aren’t my favorite kind of music, which is one reason I’m not the primary audience for the film, but that’s just taste preferences. But show tunes are most definitely not about soul, unless soul is defined solely by what you hear on American Idol, where climbing up and down the octave ladder is substituted for actual feeling. Put bluntly, while it is entirely possible the music in Dreamgirls is great on the level of show tunes (I am not the one to ask … I liked some of the songs, if that matters), the music in Dreamgirls has little connection to actual R&B/soul music. If that doesn’t bother you, then you will love Dreamgirls. And there is case to be made that we shouldn’t judge show tunes by holding them to the standards of a different kind of music.
Except … the plot of Dreamgirls hinges on the concept of soul. Which I believe makes a comparison of the music with actual soul music to be a legitimate approach. And the music ain’t soul. The bands and the arrangements are pure Broadway … Motown might have cranked out tunes like a machine, but the band was funky, which is the last thing you’d say for the musicians in Dreamgirls. The play/movie’s most famous number, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” works on a number of levels, but those levels exist in a world where a performer must, night after night, knock Broadway audiences out of their seats. It’s like the ultimate American Idol song. Jennifer Hudson knocks it out of the park … the audience in the theater where I saw it broke into applause when the song was over, which apparently is a common occurrence, and she deserves it. But it’s not soul music. And again, that hardly matters, expect Dreamgirls holds up Effie as the exemplar of soul, the symbol of what is lost in the drive to success, and while Hudson (and that song) are terrific, they don’t work as exemplars of soul.
There is plenty to like about Dreamgirls. Eddie Murphy kicks ass … I’d heard he reminded viewers of James Brown, but I thought of Jackie Wilson in the earlier scenes, when Eddie whips off his jacket in the middle of a number. And while a hundred years from now, people will still be talking about Hudson’s career being made the moment she sang “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” in Dreamgirls, Murphy has a number of his own that resonates beyond the confines of the picture. Near the end, when Murphy’s James “Thunder” Early is on the downhill slide, and he is singing Quiet Storm music because it might sell, he turns up at a show celebrating the Motown stand-in, Rainbow Records. He starts off singing a second-rate Luther Vandross-type number, then stops, says he can’t do it anymore, instructs the band to get funky, and rips through some actual gutbucket R&B. Murphy makes the entire scene work … the music isn’t any better here than anywhere else in the film … and when he first takes off his jacket, and then begins to remove his pants as well, we’re supposed to be embarrassed for him, but I was thinking the opposite, I was thinking “thank God someone finally let Eddie Murphy loose again after all those crappy movies.” I’ve been waiting for Eddie to take off those metaphoric pants since Raw, which was 20 years ago, and watching him in Dreamgirls, I can forgive him for all those Vampire in Brooklyns. (I should emphasize that not every movie Eddie Murphy has made in the last 20 years has stunk … I’m kinda fond of Bowfinger, and The Nutty Professor was very good.)
There are some other shaky moments … while it makes sense story-wise when Effie complains about how skinny Deena is, when she refers to Beyoncé’s “bony ass,” you have to wonder why they didn’t find a different part of the anatomy to refer to, Beyoncé looking as bootylicious as ever in this movie. And it’s oddly insulting when Deena and the Dreams have a disco hit with a song stolen from Effie … it’s shot as a big gay-disco production number, and it’s actually pretty good (disco music being perhaps easier for Broadway composers to mimic than soul music). But the point of the number is to show how Deena has lost her soul … we’re supposed to see the disco music as inferior in every way. And disco is associated with the gay community, which is good, this ain’t Saturday Night Fever, but how are we to take it when the only clear example of gayness (in a play that holds special meaning for the gay community) is tied to what is supposed to be inferior?
Despite all of this, if you think in advance that you’ll like Dreamgirls, odds are you will like it. It captured my attention, and I had my doubts beforehand, so I suspect it’s very good at what it is. It’s what it isn’t that bothered me. The movie is nominated for 8 Oscars, and I can’t complain about any of them. Murphy and Hudson are both excellent, the sound was so well-done that several times I wanted to turn around and shush the people behind me, only to realize it was the movie’s surround sound offering crowd noises from the back of the theater, the costumes and art direction are appropriate to their times, and while I can only remember one of the three nominated songs (and I only remember that one because of Beyoncé’s strong performance), I’m sure they are good ones. Now that I think of it, those nominations sum up Dreamgirls: good production values, good music of its kind, and a couple of outstanding performances, in a movie that got no nominations for direction or writing or Best Picture.