That gave me pause on my way into the theater to see a movie that, in some ways, paid homage to Brown as much as it did to an entire era of African American music and its influence on American popular music and culture (the Wikipedia page for the movie lays out the details better than I can). That wasn’t the reason I was going to see the movie. It gave me something else to think about, but I was merely wondering whether it would be a good movie.
Well, it was.
Like I said earlier, I didn’t get the chance to see the show when it was on Broadway, but I did get to see a touring performance of it when I was in college, and I remember being intrigued by the story and the music. Maybe that’s because it was telling the story of the music I grew up with. Now, I was born well after Motown’s heydey, but in a house where my father and older brother were avid music lovers (as I also turned out to be) it was easy for me to discover the music. I remember thumbing through what I think was my brothers copy of The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. I definitely remember playing 45s of the Supremes singing “Love Is Here (And Now You’re Gone) and “There’s No Stopping Us Now,” and singing along. (In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that’s how I learned to sing.)
Maybe it’s because I identified with the story. My youthful hopes and dreams were all about performing. I’d definitely caught the bug by second grade when I was selected to play the lead in a school production of “The Wizard of Oz,” a role that was changed from Dorothy to “Danny.” It may have been after I told a teacher I could sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and launched into an impromptu, a cappella rendition. Maybe later, after coming out and ending up in a performing arts school with some very talented classmates, I identified somewhat with Effie as the rejected underdog of the story.
Anyway, it was enough to get me into a balcony seat yesterday, and I didn’t move from that spot until the movie was over. I couldn’t. Nor did I want to.
From the beginning, it dazzles. There’s so much going on that you almost think you’re going to miss something. You find yourself in an Apollo-like amateur contest that’s entertaining enough, and the story is woven in with the music effectively, but things don’t really take off until the Dreamettes take to the stage with Effie in the lead. Next thing you know, they’re backing up Jimmy “Thunder” Early, Eddie Murphy’s composite creation that’s a kind of homage to male performers like James Brown, Little Richard, and (even!) Marvin Gaye. Then, Boom! The Dreamettes are the Dreams, Deena’s in the lead, and within minutes, they’re world famous.
That’s where I tend to agree with the critics who say that director Bill Condon slightly overuses the montage as a device to tell the story, represent a passage of time, and save himself some time. If you get up and go to the bathroom after the Dreams debut with their new name and lead singer, the former backup group will be international stars before you wash your hands. And trouble will be brewing in the group. But you should make it back to your seat in time for the show stopping number.
My other criticism is that the movie plays it safe in some ways that are rather, well, ironic, given its storyline and subject matter. The main example that stuck out to me was the portrayal of the relationships between the characters. We’re told that Curtis (the Berry Gordy character) starts out as the boyfriend of Effie (the Florence Ballard character), before he replaces here with Deena (the Diana Ross character) both in the spotlight and in bed. And we see the intimacy between Curtis and Deena play out. Similarly, Lorelle (the Mary WIlson character) gets enough intimate moments with Jimmy Early to establish their relationship as well.
But the relationship between Curtis and Effie doesn’t seem to go beyond some description and a few screen kisses. Hudson, in some of her interviews, Hudson mentions filming a bedroom scene between her and Jamie Foxx. But unless I blinked and missed it, that bit of intimacy between them seems to have been left out of the movie. That the heavier of the three Dreams, and leading ladies, seems to have come up short one love scene raised an eyebrow, for me anyway. Fortunately, the passion Hudson brings to her performance makes up for the omission, though not enough for me not to notice it. (And, anyway, it’s clear that Effie and Curtis had a sexual relationship.)
About Hudson. The reviews do not lie. She is fantastic as Effie, and gives the movie grounding and an emotional center it would lack without her. That’s impressive enough. Then you remember that she’s never acted before, and that she’s sharing the screen with some well established stars; an Oscar winner, a Tony winner, and a Grammy winner, as well as a 20-year screen veteran. And she’s carrying the movie. In fact, it starts to lag pretty noticeably when Hudson’s not on screen. Granted, some of her co-stars aren’t given much to work with. But Anika Noni Rose does manage to make Lorelle real, funny, memorable, and sympathetic (and did it without the solo that Lorelle has in the stage version).
In the film’s most dramatic moment, Hudson more than holds her own in a scene that requires her to push, shove, shout at, and get in the faces of her co-stars, demonstrating the “physical courage” the director says the role required of her. And “the song”? Hudson sings and acts the hell out of it, and does it in way that evokes Jennifer Holliday’s legendary Broadway performance without imitating it, but simultaneously makes the song and character her own as well. The theater wasn’t very crowded for the 10am matinee we attended, but those who were there broke in to applause after the song. By the it time was over, it was clear that there will have to be room enough in this world for two legendary performances of that song. If Hudson doesn’t at least get an Oscar nomination, something is very wrong.
And Eddie Murphy, as Jimmy Early, should get an Oscar nod as well. I don’t know that Murphy has ever attempted a dramatic role, but he does so successfully here. Murphy’s earlier SNL skits as Little Richard and James Brown, as well as his 80’s attempt at a musical career, probably made him an obvious choice for the role. And it would be easy to take his performance for granted as effortless. But it’s easy to forget how that Murphy could have “phoned it in” and made Jimmy a caricature of his earlier performances, or an impersonation of Brown and/or Little Richard. But he doesn’t. Instead he ends up creating the only memorable male character in a movie where most of the dramatic roles belong to women. He brings his talent for humor to the role, but tempers by humanizing Jimmy Early, and is at his most affective in a scene where he silently conveys Jimmy’s frustration and despair with just a look. When Hudson’s not on screen, Murphy holds your attention. And you miss him when he’s off screen too.
The disappointments, acting-wise, are Jamie Foxx and Beyonce Knowles. Foxx, we know, has acting chops to spare. But the script paints his character a pretty one-dimensional manipulator with a one track mind, and very little emotion. As far as we can see, he focuses his attention on Effie in order to win the Dreamettes as clients, and then on Deena as the vehicle for taking the group and the record label to crossover success. But, other than the one song he sings to Deena (which seems to focus on her more as a product than a person), we don’t know that he has or had any feelings for either of them. (Berry Gordy and Diana Ross, on whom Foxx and Knowles characters are based, may both have been opportunists who each saw the other as a means to an end, but it was also reportedly obvious that they loved each other, too.)
Ironically, the one scene in which Foxx seems to betray some emotion was driven more by Hudson’s performance than by the development of his character.
Jamie Foxx has revealed it was really hard acting opposite Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls because she was so amazing while singing ‘And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going’.
He said recently: “I’ll never forget when Jennifer Hudson was singing that song and I’m supposed to be this mean, tough dude.”
“She’s singing it so good, I’ll be welling up and stuff, I’m like, ‘You gotta hold it together. You got an Oscar [for Ray]. You got to be better than this!’”
“I’m up there [crying] saying, ‘Oh my goodness, this is so incredible.’”
I noticed it during the number that Curtis was having trouble holding it together when confronted by the full force of Effie’s pain, and took it for granted that Foxx was acting as best he could with what he had to work with, and injecting glimmer of humanity into Curtis. I kind of wish he hadn’t said anything, and had let me go on thinking that.
Then there’s Beyonce. With two movies to her credit, both comic roles, she says she wanted the role of Deena to prove her dramatic acting skills. But for most of the movie, she doesn’t. For a character based on as fascinating a person and performer as Diana Ross, there’s no “there” there in Beyonce’s portrayal of Deena. Whatever Ross was or wasn’t as a person and performer during her rise to fame, she was nothing if not ambitious. And maybe part of what made her compelling to watch was that you knew that about her, and that it in public it was sometimes just barely restrained. Deena, on the other hand, comes across as less ambitious than simply willing to go along for the ride if it’s taking her somewhere she wants to go.
There’s one moment when you perhaps catch a glimpse of at least a hint of ambition, when Curtis happens to walk in as Deena is modeling a new gown for the act; one that hugs her figure. Curtis’ attraction is obvious, and when Deena catches him staring at her in the mirror the look on her face goes from one of surprise to recognition, and finally settles into the kind of steely resolve and determination that La Ross probably employed in reality. It’s then that you get the sense Deena knows what she’s going to do (or what she’s going to let Curtis do). But that’s it. Then, poof! It’s gone, and for most of the movie she seems little more than willing to go along with Curtis’ machinations. Until the end.
About the end. I’m not sure how much the ending of the movie departs from the ending of the show, because I don’t remember all the details about the show. Other changes are obvious. Some musical numbers from the show are dropped from the movie, and new ones added (included a Deena solo towards the end). Some musical numbers are abbreviated in the movie, rather than the full versions being included, as on the soundtrack. Some of those changes I understand as being necessary to translate the story from stage to film. But I’ve also read somewhere that Diana Ross, who was displeased with the stage version, may have engaged in some legal wrangling that kept the movie from being made. I can’t substantiate any of that at this point, but part of me wonders if some of the changes from stage to screen weren’t due to that, given that the movie portrays the Diana character a somewhat better light than the stage version.
A word about the music. More than a few critics have said the music in the show and the movie didn’t live up to the “Motown Sound.” Maybe I’m going soft, but I don’t necessarily think it’s fair to expect it to. Like the other characters in the movie (in fact, the music may be a character in the movie) it’s a facsimile, which doesn’t resemble the original completely. So the disappointment in that regard, as with some of the performances, may be justifiable. But what works in a pop song doesn’t necessarily work in a stage or screen musical, where a song also has to carry some of the narrative of the story. (And adapting actual Motown songs to the task would probably have disappointed anyway.)
Short of hiring Holland Dozier Holland to write the music, expecting a reproduction of the original sound isn’t realistic. Besides, in some ways I think the music is perhaps also a somewhat tongue-in-cheek parody of the pleasant but admittedly pablum pop that predominated a certain era. The movie even goes so far as to make that suggestion when Curtis rejects a “message song” recorded by Jimmy, Lorelle and Cece as “too political” for the label. (Much in the same way Berry Gordy resisted Marvin Gaye’s desire to record “What’s Going On.”) It’s an interesting contrast against the passion that apparently flared up between numbers and behind the scenes.
My only criticism of the music comes back to Beyonce, and that there’s a bit too much Beyonce in the vocal portrayal of Deena. I had to go back to the Broadway soundtrack to remind myself that the Deena Jones of the Broadway production had a much “cleaner” sound, absent the vocal R&B riff that Knowles seems incapable of removing from her performance entirely. I found myself alternately wishing the producers had demanded a bit more restraint on her part and wondering whether they actively chose not to do so in order to increase the movie’s appeal to contemporary audiences. Her additional song, along with other factors towards the end of the story, at least gives Deena some depth she seemed to lack through most of the movie.
All in all, Dreamgirls isn’t perfect, but it’s more than close enough to satisfy. It’s got music, drama, more divas than you can count, more black actors than you’re likely to see in any dramatic movies these days, and a bigger budget than any movie with a predominantly black cast has had in long time (and, for Beyonce, a bigger paycheck than any black actress has had). At its best, it’s downright operatic.
Long before the credits rolled, I knew I’d have to see in again before while it’s still in theaters, and that I’ll have to have the DVD when it finally comes out.
(A bit of trivia. The only member of the Broadway cast to show up in the movie was Loretta Devine, who originated the role of Lorelle. Devine was joined by her Boston Public costar, Sharon Leal, who played Michelle (the Cindy Birdsong character) who replaced Effie. Diana Ross was offered the part of Deena’s mother, but turned it down. In the talent show scene at the beginning of the movie, the announcer mistakenly introduces the Dreamettes a “the Primettes,” which was also the original name of the group that became the Supremes. Ken Page, whom you may remember as Bertha Venation in Torch Song Trilogy also makes an appearance. Also, it looks like producers took pains to make sure Hudson — whose 5’9″ — didn’t tower over her costars, by putting her in flats or having her barefoot in some scenes.)