Friday, December 15, 2006

Dreamgirls - Movie Review

Dreamgirls 2006

On December 21, 1981 Broadway history was made when Jennifer Holliday closed the first act of the new musical based loosely (Loosely? Please.) on the career of Motown singing sensations The Supremes. That musical was called “Dreamgirls”; it would go on to win six Tony Awards, including Best Actress for Miss Holliday. It would lose Best Musical and Best Original Score to Maury Yeston and Tommy Tune’s brilliant musicalization of Federico Fellini’s classic film “8 ½” – retitled “9”. And you know what? The Tony voters were right. “9” is a ravishing musical, brilliantly staged that actually manages to say something substantial about the nature of art and one man’s devotion to it. “Dreamgirls” was a deliriously directed ode to pop culture excess by famed choreographer / director Michael Bennett that skated by on its top notch performances and pyrotechnical staging.

On December 15, 2006 movie history was made. For finally, after twenty five yearsDreamgirls” gets its own big screen transference . . . only to fail miserably as a movie, a musical, a launching pad for talent or an excuse to sit in a dark theatre and plan ways to regret the death of movie musicals. Sigh. We did so want to enjoy the experience. Well, don’t blame us for this amateur hour, blame the man behind the camera, Bill Condon.

Oscar winning writer / director Bill Condon who paid his own homage to forgotten Hollywood lore in his Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winningGods and Monsters”, provided a workmanlike script for the excessively vulgar Oscar winningChicago” . . . Lord, we had almost forgotten that crapfest run through a movie splicer too many times actually won an Oscar, and then proceeded to visualize a smartly filmed, but veneer thin expose on the famed “Kinsey” report has lost any respectability with a movie aimed squarely at middle America and their penchant for unattractive amateurs screeching pop ditties.

Much has been written and overly praised about the film debut of one such failed aspiring singer, Jennifer Hudson who was trounced during one of the five million seasons of that lowest of the low reality shows – “American Idiot”. Or whatever. Our hand to God, we have watched approximately twelve seconds of one of the seasons – enough time to realize that ugly people dressed up to resemble whores and mental patients shrieking moldy pop standards in front of even less talented judges is not our cup of pee.

But where to we begin with our examination of how an already bloated Broadway musical could possibly become a more bloated buswreck of a film? Well, the musical to begin with. “Dreamgirls” has always been a trite, glossy noise factory that had the overt theatricality of the original production to sustain its ever diminishing glory. Jennifer Holliday was and is an almighty powerful singer and a lousy actress. Even the critics of the day had nothing good to say about her acting skills, it was that voice from God that shattered the rafters, raised the roof and deservedly landed her the recognition that she has slowly melted into the tarpits of pseudo success in her later career. (And honestly, a few well delivered songs on “Ally McBeal” shoved in between scenes of her hamming it up as a jilted Gospel singer do not a career make.)

In that sense, Miss Hudson seems the perfect fill in for Miss Holliday. She too can scream, relatively on key. She fills out the oversized sixties drag . . . and what a divine inspiration for drag queens the world over this show has become . . . and is semi successful in clodding around the set, jutting out her fleshy lower lip and eschewing the best “Big, Sassy Black Woman” this side of Martin Lawrence in drag. Her attempt at stopping the show at midpoint with the now standard Karaoke de rigeur number, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is just that. A fine attempt. Not bad. Certainly not great. And totally smothered by the flittering direction and the VHI Movie of the Week level of acting to be found amidst the entire cast, save one. (We’ll get to them later.)

Beyoncé Knowles, who has been heralded as the Diana Ross of her generation, literally, since her not so subtle cat crawl to the top of the pop charts came on the shoulders of a rotating band of Who-ists that comprised her childhood playmates cum pop wannabes singing group, Destiny’s Child has deservedly outshone her former cribmates and emerged a true pop diva on her own. We too witnessed her full fledged ascendance into the top pop echelon with her powerful performance on the Grammys years ago when she dueted with that mighty midget of funk, Prince and blissfully kicked her girl group persona to the curb as she grabbed the spotlight for herself.

So, how fitting is it that she portrays Deena Jones / Diana Ross with a measure of outward polish and panache and a complete inability to register as a human being. Seriously, her acting in the first half of the film fluctuates from tolerable at best, laughable at least to a supreme embarrassment on every level. It is only later, when she assumes a pseudo Diana Ross impersonation that she begins to show any life at all, which is quickly deflated when she is called upon to emote.

Early in the film, when the young girl group is told by their manager cum pimp, Curtis Taylor Jr. played without any attempt at sincerity or character by Oscar winning Jamie Foxx, that they are about to launch on their own singing career emerging from the backup singer bootcamp under the Cuban heel of that utter heel, James “Thunder” Early, played by Eddie MurphyDeena’s reaction is priceless. “For real?” she manages to cough up – which leads to the audience replying en masse, “No, nothing you’ve said so far is real, why start now you stupid bitch?”

Thankfully, there is talent to be found in the film, despite the directors worst intentions. Eddie Murphy has the time of his life romping through an amalgam of James Brown, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye that is the only performance worth noting. It barely survives the evisceration that the editing team performs on his musical numbers, or the sub par lines he is forced to deliver but at least he provides some much needed energy to the dreary mess.

Tony Award winning Anika Noni Rose as the third Dreams member, Lorrell is reduced to a bit part wherein the original she at least had a proudly defiant number to belt out as the neglected backup singer and cumrag tossed around by James “Thunder” Early. It was called “Ain’t No Party” and provided the original actress Loretta Devine (seen briefly here as a singer in a local club) with a showstopper of her own. But perhaps Bill Condon realized that including a song with that title was simply gilding the wilted lily after such a lifeless show. And while Miss Noni Rose manages to outact Beyoncé or Miss Hudson, that isn’t saying much.

But the main problem with “Dreamgirls” is the far too clumsy script and the lackluster paint by numbers direction from Bill Condon. Bill. Billy. What happened? Your direction of “Gods and Monsters” was very fine. “Kinsey” moved along at a brisk pace and managed to juggle some interesting ideas. Here you reach too far: The Detroit Riots and snippets of Martin Luther King? Are you fucking kidding us? If the real story of The Supremes whitewashing of Rhythm & Blues taught us anything it was that history was indeed lost when you were too busy shellacking your wig and applying ten foot long fake eyelashes to be bothered by societies’ upheaval.

Let’s just boil it down to this: Michael Bennett was one talented ‘Mo who knew when and where to turn up the glitz. You, Bill Condon have done a bigger disservice to the proud tradition of Gay men directing musicals than Nancy Walker did with “Can’t Stop the Music”. There was only one number that we felt was staged with some degree of thought behind it, the title song.

As a late tribute to all those nightclub performances by pop songstresses of yore, it seemed to mesh well with the sound and tempo of the song. Unfortunately, as the camera swung around and around the Dreams, like a record baby, it became all too clear to us that this would be the signature directorial mark for the film. By the ten millionth time we watched in dizzy disbelief as the camera spun circles around the sterile performances of the lead players, we had had enough. Put away the sequins honey and get back to what you do best. Think less Billy, not engorged. It’s a good lesson to be learned. Bless you all!

Directed by Bill Condon
Screenplay by Bill Condon
Based on the stage musical by Tom Eyen
Original Theatrical Score by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen

Beyoncé Knowles as Deena Jones
Jamie Foxx as Curtis Taylor Jr.
Eddie Murphy as James “Thunder” Early
Jennifer Hudson as Effie Melody White
Anika Noni Rose as Lorrell Robinson
Danny Glover as Marty Madison
Sharon Leal as Michelle Morris
Hinton Battle as Wayne
Loretta Devine as Jazz Singer
John Krasinski as Sam Walsh
John Lithgow as Jerry Harris
Jaleel White as Booking agent at Detroit Theatre

Cinematography by Tobias A. Schliessler
Film Editing by Virginia Katz
Costume Design by Sharen Davis
Production Design by John Myhre
Art Direction by Tomas Voth
Set Decoration by Nancy Haigh



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