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Movie Review: Dreamgirls – Half and Half

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To say that Dreamgirls is a fictionalized account of Diana Ross and The Supremes is misleading. Rather, the narrative structure follows the climb to dominance of Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), the Berry Gordy, Jr.-like macher who repackages black musical performers for a broader market.

Curtis's story is, like Citizen Kane (1941), a romance of temptation in which the Faustian protagonist's own ambition is his Mephistopheles. And like Kane's, Curtis's perdition comes disguised as unparalleled success. His record company, based on Gordy's Motown, and his L.A. mansion are the boundaries of his lonely hell on earth (one so emotionally parched that even his Persephone takes off for good). As in soap opera, the fact that it's a deluxe hell, with set and costume design meant to stimulate the audience's materialist salivary glands, is ignored.

When the movie starts, Curtis is a used car salesman who hangs around backstage at a local Detroit theater hoping to break in as an artists' manager. Having seen too many black composers robbed of royalties, and too many R&B scorchers turned into bland pop hits in covers by white groups, Curtis liquidates his inventory and invests the proceeds in a label run by and for African-Americans. His goal is laudable, but he achieves his dream by turning it into something achievable.

The first bad news is that success in the music business requires Curtis to engage in the corrupt practices of the era: he converts cars into payola and he's on his way. In addition, Curtis is totally focused on doing what it takes to get big money. His best shot, as he sees it, is to groom his acts so that their original versions can cross over from the R&B audience to the pop audience. He reshapes a girl group called The Dreamettes, led by Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), a raucous, ample-figured, soulful R&B singer, by moving the traditionally winsome Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) into the lead spot. The more cosmetically appealing trio, rechristened The Dreams, blasts to the top of the more lucrative pop charts, i.e., the ones that track sales to white teens.

Curtis later tells Deena, then his disgruntled wife and star act, that he put her up front because she had a less characterful voice than Effie — it was all about an image he could manipulate. (Such roman-à-clef cattiness is on a par with having Citizen Kane discover an empty liquor bottle in the deserted room of Susan Alexander – i.e., Marion Davies – and is likewise easy to believe.) This also means that Curtis doesn't wait for white artists to tone "his" songs down — he does it himself and reaps the unprecedented benefits, which is also to say that he wins the war by capitulating before it starts. In addition — and this is where the story gets conventional, in its own bland, crossover way — the narrative emphasizes that Curtis does what he has to do to succeed, no matter whom he has to use, hurt, or destroy.

Curtis's temptation romance is the storyline that holds all the others together, and he is the instigator all the other characters react to, but he's not the central character. (And once again, as in Ray (2004), Foxx suggests a fine performance without being given the material to realize it.) Moreover, nobody else is the central character, either. Everybody else has his or her quest and temptation, and the movie turns into a melodrama in which all parties purify themselves by rejecting Curtis and succeeding without him, or, in one case, by dying.

Not surprisingly, the most entertaining characters surrounding Curtis are the self-destructive ones. Eddie Murphy plays James "Thunder" Early, a soul wailer modeled after James Brown (with dabs of Marvin Gaye), as a great intuitive pop artist who thinks of his creative work as a non-stop party in a traveling bordello. Jimmy doesn't need to take his music seriously in order for it to be fully achieved; in fact, not taking it seriously is part of what completes it. He embodies all our favorite lower impulses in the tremblingly responsive flesh, his voice the call of the urban wild. But Jimmy takes casualness to the point of prodigality, and is too burned out to fight Curtis when he decides he does want to be taken seriously. By the time the man disappears, the artist has already gone ahead.

With his sketch comedy skills Murphy mimics the snake-hipped, sex-and-blues raptures of countless black male singers. The real felicity of the casting, however, is that the edge of parody Murphy brings to the numbers make them more, rather than less, intense because his style of comedy merges with the deeper comic sense that Jimmy expresses in his music: the sheer carnal wonder of being alive.

It can't all be glad tidings; Jimmy exudes too much raw, ornery power for that. The high point of the movie comes when Curtis brings his troupe to Miami where he has formed tentative connections with a hotel nightclub owner who thinks his patrons will be uncomfortable watching black performers in such an intimate setting. Curtis has warned the performers to play it down, but Jimmy just can't help himself and goes all "black" on the audience in a way that harms Curtis the dealmaker and also displays contempt, whether consciously or not, for Curtis's deracinating business plan. As an actor, Murphy has the advantage of his age and expertly uses the map of experience incised on his comedian's happy face. We may presume that Murphy has learned from his own unruly life's record, but as Jimmy he shows what experience teaches even those who can't profit from its lessons.

The female skyrocket is Effie, who is dating Curtis at the time he replaces her with Deena (who also moves into his bed). Early on, as this confident, ambitious, headstrong teen, Hudson sings the knock-off numbers in the manner of Etta James's up-tempo tunes (e.g., "Something's Got a Hold on Me," "Pushover") in which her voice is so round it rolls. And Hudson wags her dialogue with some of Bessie Smith's earthy sass. During Effie's initial ascent, Hudson steals every scene she's in, onstage and off.

Then, as Curtis edges Effie out of the spotlight, Hudson is reduced to a self-pitying sullenness and rage that undermines everything that was so appealing about the tough young bundle of a womanish girl. Worse is the fact that Effie doesn't die broke at the age of 32 as did Florence Ballard, the member of The Supremes that Effie correlates to, but makes a long, drawn-out trudge back to self-respect — and the fame and fortune that it invariably leads to as we all know from our own lives. Effie's rise and fall and rise are exaggerated and yet drably predictable, just as they would be in the soaps. When you also consider that the script suggests Curtis causes Jimmy to O.D. (not intentionally, but by severing their contract), the movie starts to seem like a clearinghouse of sentimental dramaturgy.

Effie's scenes might have been enjoyable with more flamboyance even without more truth, although Hudson probably is not yet up to the demands of higher theatrical style. She doesn't, for instance, have the technique to age Effie over the movie's 15-or-so-year time span. She gets more petulant but doesn't seem toughened or deadened, not on the inside certainly, and as a result she actually appears increasingly baby-faced. Until she's reborn as Roberta Flack, that is.

Of course, the entire audience enters the theater waiting for Hudson's version of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," made famous by Jennifer Holliday in the original Broadway production. This number is rousing but tries so hard to be a non-stop gusher that it becomes monotonous. Yes, it's a feat to pull it off, but its appeal is basically trashy, a Broadway belter's dream of a masochistic show-stopper, something Judy Garland could have wrung out at Carnegie Hall if she'd grown up singing in a gospel choir. The song is all climax and Holliday puts it over by main force — screaming, belching, stomping, woo-wooing, gasping. The only way to top Holliday would be for the actress to die onstage after the last note.

Holliday has the advantage of being more womanly than Hudson, but there's also the problem of Hudson's voice, which flattens out as she repeatedly attempts to outdo her previous paroxysm. She simply doesn't have the repertoire of skills — you could say tricks — that Holliday commands. A singer could have a lot worse voice than Hudson's — Janis Joplin's, for instance — and give a more expressive rendition. (The dramatic tact necessary to make a song build, the gift Barbra Streisand had in abundance, is currently out of fashion, so Céline Dion, squalling verse after verse after verse, as if she were trying to ring a fairground bell using her uvula as the sledgehammer, now passes for a diva.) In addition, Effie's big solo comes after a truly bad group recitative in which the characters either say what we already know or something that hasn't been prepared for at all, and the fun is over. The movie is nothing but soap opera from this point on.

Still, the phoniest aspect of the show is making Deena a nice girl who not only has no intention of hurting Effie, but who begs Curtis not to make her the lead singer instead of her chubby friend (an approach at least as hoary as Donizetti's 1830 Anna Bolena, in which Jane Seymour implores Henry VIII not to cast off Anne Boleyn to marry her). I'm sorry, are we talking about the Diana Ross here? It's safe to say that no one who didn't want to be the group's lead singer and eventually a solo superstar would get where Miss Deena Jones gets in Dreamgirls. There is a potentially interesting irony in the fact that Effie, who possesses not only a more exciting voice but what we assume is a survivor's impudence as well, is the one who breaks down, while the more fragile Deena scales new heights for a black pop singer. The moviemakers are not interested in irony, however, and they leave it completely undeveloped.

But if the purveyors of such material won't supply the irony, we just have to bring it ourselves. Deena is innocent of all ambition, and it not only isn't believable, it makes her seem downright insipid, a quality that Beyoncé does not need any help with as an actress. She lacked the growl-and-prowl necessary for the blaxploitation mama in Goldmember (2002), and here she's not so much as asked for anything like the uncontainable narcissistic exuberance that made Ross such a hot-footed glamazon.

As things go downhill with Curtis's management of Deena's career, Beyoncé ends up simpering, and the older and more experienced Deena is supposed to be, the more noticeable Beyoncé's "niceness" becomes. (Her voice makes her as girlish as the white ingénues in Hollywood movies of the '40s and '50s; compared to Beyoncé, breathy, seducible Doris Day sounds like a phone-sex siren.) And, like Hudson, Beyoncé doesn't seem to age, but just takes on a weird, fashion-doll stiffness. The Deena subplot, in fact, starts to resemble Diana Ross's Mahogany (1975, directed by Gordy, costumes by Ross) — the agony of beauty, talent, love, fame, and fortune, with a thousand outfit changes — minus the relief valve of unintentional camp which is all that makes Mahogany watchable.

The third member of The Dreams, Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose), has much less material than Effie and Deena. Hers is the classic sudser role of a married man's other woman, and she seems to be included not because historically there were always three members of The Supremes but because there have always been three girls in compare-and-contrast movies like Sally, Irene, and Mary (1925), Three on a Match (1932), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), A Letter to Three Wives (1949), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Les Girls (1957), Valley of the Dolls (1967), and Sparkle (1976), the most on-point precursor). Finally, Danny Glover as Marty Madison, Jimmy's first manager from whom Curtis romances him, and who later represents Effie in her comeback, shows up periodically to presage what everybody else will feel about Curtis by the end of the movie.

There are just too many cornball storylines for the simplistic romance/melodrama structure. All these trajectories — the struggles, triumphs, and set-backs — might have been coordinated if the movie had been conceived of as the assimilation epic of African-American pop artistry and entrepreneurship. Adapting the Broadway hit, however, writer-director Bill Condon simply hasn't thought that big (or perhaps wasn't free to), and what he presents is too disorganized, even on its own terms. The ending, a last reunion of The Dreams that coincides with several other realizations and reconciliations, is so blatant and clumsy that you could lose all respect for the director though you'd loved everything that came before, which I certainly did not.

The major problem with the movie version of Dreamgirls isn't the music, it's the dramatic structure. Can the music save it? While The Dreams are on their way up I would say yes. The movie opens at an amateur night contest in which some faked R&B numbers in a range of styles rock the house. It's also a plus that in the rising action the performers mostly sing onstage rather than just bursting into song. Crisply choreographed by Fatima Robinson, these numbers make you feel like you're burning calories just by sitting and watching. The burst-into-song numbers to come are all duds, and the ersatz singer-songwriter and disco numbers of the '70s aren't as enjoyable as the earlier material. It's possible that even if the later songs were good, the accretion of stale dramatic ideas would have overwhelmed them. Yet as painful as the movie had become by the end, I could have happily sat through the first half a second time, though I was barely able to sit through the second half once.

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About Alan Dale

  • http://movies.groups.yahoo.com/group/thejudygarlandexperience/ Daniel

    Speaking of Judy Garland, there is a popular new group on Yahoo called THE JUDY GARLAND EXPERIENCE. They have amazing audio files, great photo’s, lively discussions and more! If you are a Judy fan you need to check this site out. All of Judy’s biggest fans are there.

  • http://www.weirdprofessortype.com Alan Dale

    Thanks for the link, Daniel. The existence of the Judy Garland web-site made think that even the bad parts of Dreamgirls are probably “fabulous” enough to gain a following.

  • Jamal Sledge

    What a great review as always, Alan! I haven’t visited your page in quite some time but I HAD to read your opinion regarding “Dreamgirls” since you’re always good at critiquing films with a predominately black cast.

    I agree with you about Hudson and her singing when compared to Holliday’s. Armond White in his scathing review noted how Hudson sounds like all the other “American Idol” singers: technically precise but inexpressive. Since she’s a product of the Whitney Houston/Mariah Carey/Celine Dion generation, her type of vocal prowess is more appreciated than someone with a limited range that can make a song magic by building up it up to an ultimate climax. When I watch Holliday she makes the song believable; Hudson has a remoteness to her singing that leaves you cold after it’s all done and over. I’ve read all these glowing reviews about her singing—comparing her to greats like Aretha Franklin—and I couldn’t for the life of me understand why when I felt there was something missing in her delivery. It reminds me of something Armond White said about Whitney Houston in the 80s that can be easily substituted for Hudson’s singing: “It could all be just noise to her, because she sings with the same tuneful indifference on each cut.”

    Speaking of Armond White: I know you’re not a fan (he can be extremely militant), but I think he made some good points about “Dreamgirls” that other critics seemed to ignore. You may think I’m crazy in saying this but I see many similarities between you and White—minus that you’re not as abrasive and pompous when panning a movie, of course.

  • Oliver

    It’s not fair to compare. Jennifer Hudson and Fantasia Barrino both have acknowledged Aretha Franklin as their inspiration. Back in the day, many female singers were able to sell records if they even mentioned in their liner notes that they had “listened to” or “were inspired by” Aretha Franklin. I know I have several lps with girls who mentioned Aretha and I was very disappointed that they didn’t have “the tools.”

    Hudson and Fantasia both have the tools, but they are very young and experience will be more deeply implanted into their souls.

  • http://www.weirdprofessortype.com Alan Dale

    Thanks, Jemal. Good to hear from you again.

    Armond White’s line about Whitney is great. I liked his review of Dreamgirls and I agree that he and I have a number of intuitions in common. I’m not interested in more glossy soap operas, not even ones starring underrepresented segments of the population. I don’t want history to be turned into melodrama or romance. I’m not offended or bored by the way things really happened but I am by the attempt to transform reality into the same old show biz hot dog meat.

    At the same time, I think White’s anger keeps him from doing more thorough analysis. He tells us that Dreamgirls distorts history but he doesn’t tell us how in a cogent enough way, or what that history actually was. And, finally, though I dislike the history of pop music being distorted, I’m not sure it matters that much. If you’re going to do it, do it right. But if it weren’t done at all I don’t think the world would be much impoverished. In any case, I don’t invest that much emotion in the matter.

    Oh yeah, and Lonette McKee is way fierce in Sparkle.

    As for other critics, their good intentions soften their brains when it comes to minority subject matter and artists. As if fulsome, overstated praise could open doors or redress historical injustice. (If that’s what they care about, why are they movie critics?) Their earnestness is simply patronizing and justly breeds contempt.

  • http://www.weirdprofessortype.com Alan Dale

    Thanks for the comment, Oliver. While it may not be fair to compare, it is inevitable, esp. since Hudson took Holliday’s role in the movie version. But I wouldn’t have needed a point of comparison to cringe when Hudson was singing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”

    Your point about being influenced by Aretha Franklin escapes me. Have you heard her album The First 12 Sides? She had both raging talent and masterful control at age 18. Hudson and Fantasia need experience more deeply implanted into their vocal chords, not their souls.

  • Oliver

    Yes, Alan, I have The First 12 Sides and I was absolutely floored when I heard it. It was played over and over again, as I could NOT believe what an incredible singer Aretha was. I rushed out and bought everything on her in the stores.

    If you look at the early performances by Hudson and Fantasia on American Idol, they are very awkward. It is very difficult to sing songs that have been established by stars like Aretha, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, etc. It is, unless you are Aretha Franklin.

    By the end of Jennifer Hudson’s run on the show, she had developed into a first-rate singer and then didn’t get enough votes to stay. The night Fantasia was announed as the winner, she was able to FINALLY sing the way she knew she could.

    I’m not for sure, but I suspect AI tells soul singers not to use the scream (it might turn white people off). Soul shouter, Peggi Blu, who won Star Search the year Sam Harris won as male vocalist, was told to “tone it down.” She was also told the same thing when she signed with RCA Victor. She did and her first album, Blu Blowin’ was a bore. Her career went nowhere and she ended up backgrounding for less talented singers.

    Poor Fantasia has obvisouly been told: “you have to go hip/hop if you want to sell records.” As a result, her two CDs are awful, sounding like Mary J. Blige and the rest of the hip/hop junk. Hudson has vowed that she is “not a hip/hop singer.” And, she intends to sing “classic soul.”

    Let’s hope she does. What bothers me is that she’s signed with Clive Davis (as is Fantasia).

  • http://www.weirdprofessortype.com Alan Dale

    Thanks for the reply, Oliver. Very informative and I respect your generosity to young talent. “Toning it down” is especially relevant considering it’s one of the central elements of Dreamgirls. I’ve always loved the description of the young Tina Turner as “screaming dirt.” So much preferable to a pro like Celine Dion on the Oscars last night, pitching horseshoes with her tonsils.

  • http://launch.groups.yahoo.com/group/BillieHoliday_And_The_Disciples_Of_Swing/ Buzz

    Speaking of Aretha, there is a great group on Yahoo called Billie Holiday And The Disciples Of Swing. The group features audio files of classic Jazz Vocalists. This past month they have been celebrating Girl Singer’s Month and this weeks playlist includes a great unreleased track of Skylark performed by Aretha at the Detroit Music Hall in 1986.. Here is the link to the group and the current playlist.
    Billie Holiday And The Disciples Of Swing

    01 And This Is My Beloved.mp3 Gloria Lynne at Basin Street 912 K

    01 As Long As I Live.mp3 Peggy Lee (rehearsal, 1962) 989 KB

    01 Darktown Strutters Ball.mp3 Alberta Hunter, 1978 2532 KB

    01 I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.mp3 Sarah Vaughan, 198X 1938 KB

    01 Manhattan.mp3 Lee Wiley 1627 KB

    01 S’Wonderful.mp3 Ella Fitzgerald and Sammy Davis Jr. 1320 KB

    01 They Raided The Joint.mp3 Helen Humes at the Pasadena Auditorium, 1952 836 KB

    02 Loud Talkin’ Woman.mp3 Helen Humes at the Pasadena Auditorium, 1952 1385 KB

    02 The More I See You.mp3 Keely Smith, studio session, 6/20/1985
    2791 KB

    02 Willow Weep For Me.mp3 Billie Holiday, Toronto, 8/57 1939 KB

    03 Flying Home.mp3 Ella Fitzgerald, Carnegie Hall, 9/18/1949 2602 KB

    03 I Only Have Eyes For You.mp3 Billie Holiday, Toronto, 8/57 955 KB

    03 I’ll Get Along Somehow.mp3 Nancy Wilson 2581 KB

    03 Mood Indigo.mp3 Lena Horne and Tony Bennett 1217 KB

    04 Billie’s Blues.mp3 Billie Holiday, Toronto, 8/57 1614 KB

    04 Lucky Day.mp3 Annie Ross,1959 1051 KB

    04 One Night Stand.mp3 Janis Joplin, 1970 1468 KB

    04 Why Don’t You Do Right.mp3 Linda Hopkins, 6/18/82 1572 KB

    05 After You’ve Gone.mp3 Kay Starr, 1975 1177 KB

    05 Azure-te.mp3 Ernestine Anderson, studio session, 1958 1395 KB

    05 Lover Come Back To Me.mp3 Billie Holiday, Toronto, 8/57 1088 KB

    05 Miss Brown to You.mp3 Carmen McRae, studio session, 6/29/1961 1172 KB

    06 Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby.mp3 Ann Richards, studio session, 1960 1272 KB

    07 I’d Rather Go Blind.mp3 Etta James live at Memory Lane, 1986 3213 KB

    07 Influences.mp3 Billie Holiday 432 KB

    07 The Way We Were.mp3 Peggy Lee (1974 Academy Awards) 1997 KB

    08 My Funny Valentine.mp3 Anita O’Day at Carnegie Hall, 1986 3213 KB

    08 No Ways Tired.mp3 The Barret Sisters, 1983 2535 KB

    08 You’ve Changed.mp3 Shelby Lynne, studio session, 2006 1706 KB

    09 But Not For Me.mp3 Gladys Knight 1885 KB

    09 Influences part 2.mp3 Billie Holiday, Toronto, 8/57 2278 KB

    09 Porgy.mp3 Nina Simone at Westbury Music Fair, 1968 1634 KB

    09 Skylark.mp3 Aretha Franklin, Detroit Music Hall 1986 1799 KB

    10 Mean Way Of Loving.mp3 Helen Humes at the Pasadena Auditorium, 1952 1095 KB

    13 He Brought Us.mp3 The Barret Sisters, 1983 2927 KB

    13 My Funny Valentine_The Gentleman is a Dope.mp3 Peggy Lee and Lena Horne, 1978 912 KB

    15 I Wish You Love 1.mp3 Barbra Streisand, JFK Stadium 1966 1408 KB

    15 More.mp3 Baby Jane Dexter 1300 KB

    15 Only The Lonely.mp3 Aretha Franklin, studio session, 7/16/64
    2306 KB

    17 I Cried For You.mp3 Helen Humes at the Pasadena Auditorium, 1952
    868 KB

    17 You Turned The Tables On Me.mp3 Anita O’Day on the BBC, 1964
    1382 KB

    18 Medley.mp3 Anita O’Day and Chris Connor at Michaels Pub, 1989
    3253 KB

    19 If I Were A Bell.mp3 June Christy Live At The Dunes 856 KB

    20 It Don’t Mean A Thing.mp3 June Christy Live At The Dunes 1045 KB

    21 Jeepers Creepers.mp3 june Christy Live At The Dunes 817 KB

    22 Too Marvelous.mp3 June Christy Live At The Dunes 826 KB

    25 Mixed Emotions.mp3 Dinah Washington Live At Basin Street, 7/10/55
    1480 KB

    26 Come Rain Or Shine.mp3 Dinah Washington Live At Basin Street, 7/10/55 798 KB

  • http://www.weirdprofessortype.com Alan Dale

    What a treasure-trove! Thanks for the tip, Buzz.