Saturday, February 03, 2007

Review - Dreamgirls

Dreamgirls may only just be arriving in cinemas, but we seem to have been living with it for a long time already. Some time early last year we began to hear the first rumblings of the hype machine kicking into action, letting us know that something big was on the horizon. A few months later, many industry insiders were inexplicably hailing it as a guaranteed Best Picture winner before any footage from the film had even been seen; and before its official release date, Dreamgirls played a limited run at select US cinemas for $25 a go - it was a marketing campaign which seemed to be calibrated to perfection.

Then, the Academy Awards nominations were announced, and Bill Condon’s film found itself unexpectedly shut-out in the major categories, with 3 of its 8 nominations occurring in the Best Original Song slot. Over the next couple of days many people speculated on the reasons for Dreamgirls’ underwhelming Oscar showing, but there’s really just one reason which matters: Dreamgirls has its moments, but it’s really not much of a picture.
Dreamgirls is the story of three aspiring singers who have been performing together since the age of twelve, with little success. Deena (Beyoncé Knowles) is the beautiful, level-headed one with the good voice; Effie (Jennifer Hudson), the lead singer, is the larger, stubborn one with the titanic voice; and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) is the quieter, optimistic one whose voice is somewhat drowned out by her colleagues. Together they’re The Dreamettes, and the film opens with them suffering disappointment yet again when they lose a local talent show, but fate intervenes in the shape of Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a car salesman looking to make some headway in the music industry. He offers them the break of a lifetime, the chance to go on tour as backing singers with Jimmy ‘Thunder’ Early (Eddie Murphy); and so begins a journey which will lead the girls to both success and heartbreak.

As Curtis tries to push Jimmy’s music beyond the black stations which he has been restricted to, it’s his backing singers who begin to catch the attention of various managers and producers, and The Dreamettes are offered their own act, but only if Deena takes over the leading vocals from Effie. Curtis tells Effie that they’re simply looking for a lighter touch to appeal to mainstream audiences, but it’s clear that ‘lighter’ in this context means ‘whiter’, with Effie’s booming, distinctively black voice being dropped in favour of the blander and more conventionally beautiful Deena. Curtis then drops Effie for Deena in the bedroom too, and Effie is eventually forced out of the band, drifting quickly into obscurity and poverty.

Does this sound familiar? It may well do, because with Dreamgirls there’s a story behind the story. The 1981 Broadway musical from which this film is adapted was a thinly-masked depiction of The Supremes’ rise to stardom. Deena is Diana Ross (the group eventually morphs into Deena Jones and The Dreams) and Effie is Florence Ballard, who died at the age of 32, penniless and an alcoholic. Foxx is Berry Gordy Jr, Ross’ lover as well as the driving force behind The Supremes’ success; while Murphy seems to be an amalgamation of various R&B singers - taking a little bit from artists like James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Little Richard and Sam Cooke. The stage musical is a tough act to follow; it was a Broadway sensation, winning 6 Tony Awards and running for 1,522 performances.

Bill Condon’s attempt to translate this winning formula to the screen is seriously flawed, but most of those flaws occur in the film’s second half, and Dreamgirls’ opening act is pretty good fun. There’s an energy and exuberance to the picture, with most of it provided by Eddie Murphy, and after lending his talents to so many unworthy films over the past decade, it’s a pleasure to see Murphy recapturing some semblance of the abrasive, cocky attitude which defined his brilliant early performances of the 80’s. When Murphy is strutting his stuff on stage he energises the whole picture; in one brilliant moment, a backstage rehearsal segues seamlessly into a fantastic live performance. Murphy also brings a note of sadness to the part of a fading star trying to claw his way back to the top, but it’s his thrilling showmanship which really makes a mark on the film.

Murphy’s display is all the more valuable when held against the desperately poor performances turned in by the nominal leads, Jamie Foxx and Beyoncé Knowles. Foxx’s Curtis is a one-dimensional schemer, and the actor doesn’t imbue the part with any of the vitality or nuance he has displayed previously. His dreary, flat singing voice also rankles alongside his co-stars’ strong vocals, and Foxx never seems particularly comfortable in the role. Knowles looks and sounds like a dream when she’s singing on stage, but as soon as she’s taken out of that comfort zone and asked to act, her weaknesses are exposed. She’s an emotional blank, and she never develops much of a personality as the film progresses. Foxx and Knowles’ wan performances are damaging for the film, but the supporting players do some good work; Danny Glover and Keith Robinson give their supporting roles a touch of pathos as they watch Curtis and Jimmy ride roughshod over their dreams, and Anika Noni Rose gives a lovely performance as the third Dreamette, which unfortunately seems destined to be overlooked.

But Dreamgirls belongs to Jennifer Hudson. The former American Idol contestant is making her acting debut here, and what an astonishing debut it is, comprehensively stealing the film from the more established stars around her. Hudson gives a natural, funny, moving performance which provides Dreamgirls with its only source of real emotion. She also gets the opportunity to perform the song And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going, a song which she tears into with blistering intensity. Her powerhouse singing is by some distance the highpoint of the movie - even if it goes on too long - but it’s also something of a double-edged sword.
And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going is the kind of showstopper most movies would kill for, but it quite literally stops the show here. After this moment, which marks the end of Act 1, Dreamgirls staggers around for a while, as if it has been left punch-drunk by Hudson’s emotional outburst, and it never really recovers. After the fun of the movie’s first half, Dreamgirls’ second hour is a maudlin disappointment, with the endless unmemorable songs (even Hudson’s centrepiece is notable more for her lung-bursting rendition than anything else) failing to become much more than background noise. Condon lets his grip on the film’s pacing slacken badly in the final third, and the rushed chronology and poorly-drawn characters preclude any real emotional impact as the story hits all the clichéd beats you’d expect. Dreamgirls is the kind of picture which needs to build to a big finale, but Condon has already played his hand with Hudson’s explosive song, and he can’t find anything to match it as the picture drifts to a drab conclusion.
Dreamgirls isn’t really a bad picture per se. There is a lot to admire in the slick way the film is put together, a few of the performances are strong, and its depiction of the way black musicians watered down their music to appeal to a mass audience is interestingly depicted; but it’s a hard film to really get excited about. There’s nothing new here, nothing daring or ambitious about the way this story unfolds and, aside from one star-making moment, there’s nothing to really engage the emotions. Dreamgirls is a film convinced of its own brilliance when it truth it’s a strictly average piece of filmmaking, and it’s only when Hudson or Murphy take centre-stage that you can see the movie briefly displaying some soul.