There’s a presumption of prestige to musicals that just hasn’t existed until now in the history of cinema. It used to be that studios and producers could crank out musicals in the same way they’d turn out period dramas or slapstick comedies or silly horror movies. Then came the musical drought following the 60s; and throughout the 70s, 80s and much of the 90s the only songs you heard in movies came from the rock/pop soundtrack. Sure there were the occasional exceptions, Grease in ’78 or anything by Disney for example, but the musical as a persistent genre in film was more or less dead by the time Y2K came around.
It took Moulin Rouge to show that there was still life in the genre, and an appetite on the part of audiences to still indulge in musical film. In recent years, we’ve seen a veritable comeback of the form with the likes of Chicago, Rent, The Phantom of the Opera and The Producers, then later this year in 2007 we’ll be seeing the big screen version of Hairspray! and Sweeny Todd. But what do these movies have in common? They are either based on pre-existing stage productions, or they’re based on stage musicals that were originally non-musical movies, or the movie’s songs are just rearranged modern pop ditties from the likes of Madonna or Prince. Being original and musical seems to be two distinctly different prerogatives in the modern movie business. Blame it on illegal downloading or a deficit of song-writing talent, call it whatever you like, but if your musical doesn’t have a known hook or a pre-existing fan base, you’re sunk.
This brings me to the latest in musical prestige pictures, Dreamgirls, based on the Broadway musical that premiered on December 20th, 1980 at the Imperial Theatre. And as the film began and the music started to play I found my paranoid-turned-whatever-happened-to-the-musical, movie geek personality being shoved into a closet somewhere in the back of my brain.
Loosely inspired (to what degree depends on who you talk to) by the story of the Supremes and their rise from obscurity to superstardom, Dreamgirls is about a unique era in music. We meet Deena, Lorrell and Effie (Beyonce Knowles, Anika Noni Rose and Jennifer Hudson), three Detroit singers hoping to make it to the top as the Dreamettes. During a talent competition, they’re plucked from obscurity to sing back-up for the charismatic James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy) by smooth operator Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx). Taylor invests all he has into the act and turns his Cadillac dealership into a recording studio and main office for Rainbow Records.
The Dreamettes are eventually spun off from Early into their own act called The Dreams, and Deena replaces Effie as the lead at Curtis’s insistence. It quickly becomes clear that Curtis is investing all his time and effort into Deena in spite of the fact that he’s supposed to managing a group and dating Effie. Things develop to the point where Effie blows up with all her emotion in the song “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”, as Effie leaves the group and tries to pursue fame on her own, to limited success.
Beyonce may get the credit on the marquee, but the true star of Dreamgirls is Hudson’s audacious and memorable performance as Effie. Her rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is absolutely knee-buckling in its power and resonance; all of Effie’s anger and frustration, as well as her vulnerability, is poignantly delivered in one show-stopping tune. With full attention on her, Hudson doesn’t fail to deliver the goods and shows the confidence of a performer with years of experience. Hudson, of course, was a Top 7 finalist in the 2004 round of American Idol, and how she lost is quite beyond me. Although, lucky for her, she got out before the Idol curse was able to dig its claws in her.
The other surprise in the movie is Eddie Murphy’s decidedly un-Eddie Murphy-like turn as the has-been Early, who descends into a pit of depression as his artistic vision is compromised in the name of sales and marketing. Like many, I had long gotten sick of Murphy’s antics being only able to swallow his smarmy delivery behind the mask of a CGI Donkey sidekick. But here I was pulling for Murphy, and in turn Early, and as awards season progresses I’m sure to find myself continuing to pull for Murphy even though I’m certain that an Oscar win will give him license to make another decade’s worth of crappy comedies like Pluto Nash and Daddy Day Care.
The music exemplifies classic show tune styling with a necessary soul or Motown twist in order to authenticate the film’s period. Director Bill Condon does work the set-up a little differently as the song and dance numbers are more or less done within the confines of the stage or the recording booth with few exceptions. Occasionally, he works bits of song into scenes of dialogue which works rather well, albeit in an unusual way. Sometimes the songs are used to narrate a montage as the Dreamettes cross country on their first tour or pursue the separate roads laid out before they drift apart in the wake of Curtis’s Deena-vision focus. The music itself is excellent; truly great, toe-tapping show tunes that I won’t sully by trying to sing, but I do intend to buy the film’s soundtrack to feel the experience again.
I am proud to add my voice to the chorus of praise makers for Dreamgirls. Musical fans will surely be pleased; those who despise musicals are recommended to stay away.