Anika Noni Rose
2 Hrs.,10 Mins.
Dreamgirls September 6, 2019
didn’t want to like Dreamgirls (2006). Take its parts individually — its genre, its stars, its narrative, its historical bedrock — and I don’t have a problem. But the age-old problem, to my tastes, is that it’s unappealing to not only rewrite an already heavily mythologized history but also rewrite it with a thickly spread coating of gloss. True, the 1960s- to ‘70s-spanning Dreamgirls is only loosely based on the rises and falls of the Supremes,
Motown, James Brown, et cetera. And it’s based on a 1980s stage play that leans on the glittery, histrionic side of things. It was no accident that more than a spoonful of razzle-dazzle be heaped onto it. But taking such liberties with history while also being so romantic about it is touchy. There’s tragedy in Dreamgirls, but it’s sold with more than a couple of clumps of sugar on top. Here, tragedy seems a fount for dramatic possibility more than a senseless phenomenon that’s bonafide wasteful, heartstring-pulling. The offness is pronounced.
But even though my intuition whispered to me that I wouldn’t ultimately like Dreamgirls early on, eventually the movie shredded through the guard I’d put up, which after watching the movie I suspect is made out of cheese. It only took about two scenes, and three performances, for me to give myself over to it. The scenes involve a brand of ferocious and cleverly narrativist sing-acting that still feels like an oddity for the movie musical. The performances are by Eddie Murphy, Beyoncé Knowles, and Jennifer Hudson, the latter of whom rightly won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her incendiary work in the movie. Sometimes that’s all it takes for a film to seduce you — just definitive-feeling performances and moments that implore a viewer to want to put a trademark symbol at the end of them. On more niche-oriented occasions, like in the case of Dreamgirls, you realize how difficult a thing it is to pull off an effective movie musical post-studio system. Fans of the genre, such as myself, tend to scavenge for any scraps they can get. With Dreamgirls, one might initially scrounge for greatness. Then, once it ends, we realize we’ve been given a fairly filling meal of it.
Dreamgirls feels like a gratifying four-hour-long epic, but it just barely crosses the two-hour mark. It begins in 1962 and ends in 1975. Mostly it concerns itself with the lightning-fast ascent of a Supremes-style girl group called the Dreamettes, whom we first meet at a modest Detroit talent show. (They don’t win; the title goes to a guitarist-singer in the B.B. King vein.) The film, which has been invigoratingly adapted from the stage by Bill Condon, chronicles their come-up.
The Dreamettes see astronomical success but at what might platitudinously be described as a great cost. Early on, their manager, a desperate former car-dealer named Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Foxx), makes a line-up change. He moves the plumper, more abrasive Effie (Hudson) from lead to secondary vocalist and puts the great-voiced but more conventionally beautiful Deena (Knowles) at the front.
He also makes a romantic swap. First, he courts Effie, then unceremoniously drops her for the new de-facto leader. This results in Deena becoming a young icon. When Effie’s hurt becomes so great that she begins acting out, she, spoiler alert, is ousted from the group. She then becomes a destitute single mother. (The father, unbeknownst to him, is Curtis.)
For a little bit of Dreamgirls, we try to play spot the difference. Deena is a bizarro version of Diana Ross. The Svenagliesque Curtis stands in for Motown head Berry Gordy, Jr. (they’re even both named after their fathers), Effie for Florence Ballard, always-taking-shit songwriter C.C. (Keith Robinson) for Smokey Robinson. Murphy plays a pivotal role as an amalgam of James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and Jackie Wilson, whom the Dreamettes’ other backup singer, the forever bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose), illicitly romances. (He’s married.) But we eventually learn not to. This is all meant to be equal parts a glamorous, overwrought juxtaposition of success and failure, not a veritable historical document.
Dreamgirls isn’t that deep. It’s been done in pretty, catered-to-the-bigger-picture strokes à la Monet. But the actors live through it all with a fierce commitment to the material, which gives it some meat. There’s a zealous hungriness to the performances, and it’s complemented by the decoration of it all. Condon has done an exquisite job giving us a movie that at once feels sweepingly romantic and dirt-on-the-ground brutal. You have to fight to stay alive in its brightly colored and beatifically decorated world. You want to reach the upper echelons.
In Dreamgirls, everything arguably depends on the performances. The storyline is compelling to a certain extent, but it’s orthodox and for the most part orthodoxly executed. The actors are what make you want to eat up the film like a rich dessert. Murphy’s comic shtick tends to grate on me more than it doesn’t. So to see him in a role like the one in Dreamgirls — he’s a self-destructive lothario always on the brink of a romantic suicide, a professional suicide, a literal suicide — is refreshing. There’s a fucked-up thrill in finding out if he’s going to continue making gains or start hurtling downward.
Knowles isn’t a naturally gifted actor, but she has an unassailable showman’s spirit that makes us believe in her. Her acting ranges from efficient to iffy throughout the movie. But in a scene toward the end of the feature — where she’s arduously belting a new song in a recording studio that reflects what she’s going through in her personal life — that belly-punches you with its power. (This doesn’t have to do with her performance per se, but I also enjoy the element of metacommentary in her casting: around the same time, Knowles, as it happens, had just finished leading a girl group of her own, and faced controversy for being given a disproportionate amount of attention during its reign.)
Dreamgirls belongs to Jennifer Hudson. Like Knowles, her casting has an undertow of real-life inspiration. She had just been a contestant on American Idol (2002-present) but didn’t win, despite being the best singer in that year’s batch. Were the political reasons buttressing each setback comparable? There’s a freakish famine to Hudson’s performance. She strangles you with her desperation when she sings. It’s a showy role, to be sure — the most necessary element, for the Effie part, is that whoever is playing her can sing with an inordinate amount of zest. But Hudson, in addition to doing some of the best pleading-singing I’ve seen in a movie, is more emotionally lucid than most of her ensemble-mates. The thinness of Deena’s arc, which can be partially attributed to Knowles’ waveringly uncertain performance, thickens, to be fair. But Effie, as played by Hudson, is bell-clear from the start. Her dissatisfaction with the way her career is moving, paired with her tacit and thus inescapable stubbornness, has an undeniable force to it, almost becoming material in our hands.
Dreamgirls is something of a material itself — all shiny and satiny. A shiny stretch of satin cannot do much for us in the long run, but in a given moment it’s pretty to look at and feels good to the touch. The subversion of this movie is that it’s pretty to look at and feels good but proves itself rather substantial the more we adjust to it. B+