Dreamgirls: Condon’s Musical Masterpiece
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Who said a big-studio, big-budget extravaganza can’t be every bit as powerful and moving as the cheapest, cheesiest indie financed by a film-school graduate using the family credit cards? Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls, the long-awaited big-screen adaptation of the 1981 Broadway musical that told a thinly veiled version of the rise and fall of 1960’s soul stars the Supremes (called “The Dreams” in both play and film) and the Motown company that employed them, is a great film, energetic and moving, true both to the enduring power of the music and the seaminess of the tactics with which it was (and is) marketed and sold. Impeccably directed by Condon, who also wrote the script from Tom Eyen’s musical, Dreamgirls features surprisingly good performances from Beyoncé Knowles (we knew she could sing; we didn’t know she could act) and Eddie Murphy (ordinarily one of the most repulsive performers around, but not here), a great job by Jamie Foxx as a smooth villain and a star-making turn by Jennifer Hudson, who out-acts and out-sings the rest of the cast in what’s truly the centerpiece role of Eyen’s take on the Supremes’ story.
The film opens in Detroit in the late 1950’s, at an amateur night contest at the all-Black (performers, staff and audience) Detroit Theatre. The Dreamettes — Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) — arrive late because one of them had to wait for her mother to go to sleep before she could sneak out of the house and make it to the theatre. A sympathetic stage manager lets them go on last — after a B.B. King-style blues guitarist and singer has already torn up the audience and seems unfollowable — and, predictably, the Dreamettes lose the contest. But they win something better: a gig, starting that very night, as backup singers to the show’s professional headliner, soul star James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy, doing his own singing and doing it surprisingly well). They and Effie’s brother C. C. (Keith Robinson), who writes their songs, also start an association with Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx, top-billed), a used-car salesman who’s hoping to use Early and the Dreamettes to launch his new, all-Black record label, Rainbow Records.
After Early’s first Rainbow release is ripped off by a terminally lame white artist (much the way mid-1950’s rock ’n’ roll records by artists like Little Richard and Fats Domino were covered and bleached white — in both senses — by the likes of Pat Boone), Taylor and his associates at the label knuckle down to business. They sell off the cars and do everything they can think of, legal or otherwise, to raise the money needed to bribe enough D.J.’s to get their next record on the air and make it a hit. The ambitious Taylor splits Early and the Dreamettes, changing their name to the Dreams (“’-ettes’ are girls, and you’re women now,” he explains) and making Deena, not Effie, the lead singer because he figures Deena’s cooler, blander style would have a better shot at appealing to white audiences than Effie’s Aretha-like soul belting. Taylor also transforms Early from a righteous soul shaker in the manner of Jackie Wilson and James Brown to a bland nightclub singer in the Johnny Mathis mold, pissing him off and leading him to a self-destructive drug-fueled downward spiral.
The great virtue of Dreamgirls is writer-director Condon’s ability to balance the inspiring and the sordid aspects of the story. The righteous power of the music (good faux-soul songs by lyricist Eyen and composer Henry Krieger) and the more negative parts of the tale — particularly Taylor’s growing egomania as he treats his artists like interchangeable parts in the autos he used to sell, even while piously insisting his company is still a “family” — play off each other instead of getting in each other’s way. Eyen brought his version of the Supremes’ saga to a much happier and more sentimental close than the real one, but the central conflicts of his story — the cold war between Deena and Effie not only for leadership of the Dreams but for Taylor’s mercurial affections, and the collapse of Effie’s career and life after she’s booted out of the group and reduced to raising her (and Taylor’s) daughter on welfare — ring true.
It’s also a movie that confronts the basic artificiality of the musical as a form — the way a snatch of instrumental music steals in under the dialogue and all of a sudden the people have stopped speaking and started singing — in the way most of the great musicals of the past did: by making the story about people who sing and dance for a living. Most of the songs are presented realistically, performed in the course of the Dreams’ live appearances or recording sessions — and the record dates are shown the way they really happen, with the singers wearing headphones and adding vocals to previously recorded backing tracks. (It still rankles that in the otherwise excellent Tina Turner biopic, What’s Love Got to Do with It, she was shown recording “River Deep, Mountain High” with a full symphony orchestra in the studio with her — prohibitively expensive even for someone as crazy as Phil Spector, who produced that record.)
Even when the characters start singing to each other in the course of ordinary conversations — which, thank goodness, isn’t very often — the conceit works because the musical settings heighten the emotions and hammer home the dramatic points in ways ordinary dialogue couldn’t do. The only really bothersome musical convention Condon indulges in is the appearance of large bands on the soundtrack when the Dreamettes are performing in an amateur contest backed only by a five-piece group (we see one trumpeter and one saxophonist and we hear full brass and reed sections blasting away) and, later, when Effie is auditioning for a comeback gig in a nightclub with no accompaniment except a bored rehearsal pianist whom she doesn’t quite trust to know her material.
Dreamgirls is superbly cast. Though Eddie Murphy’s emergence as a quite capable soul vocalist is a real surprise, the rest of the leads are cast, thank goodness, with people who can really sing. (When Queen Latifah, the only cast member of Chicago who actually makes her living as a singer, belted out her number, she made the rest of the players seem pathetic by comparison.) Beyoncé Knowles’ physical and vocal resemblance to Diana Ross, the real-life model for her character, is almost uncanny. Yet the real star of the show is Jennifer Hudson, the first person since Jill Scott who’s really mastered the all-out style of Aretha Franklin and the other great soul divas of the 1960’s. The conflict between the two women is emphasized not only by the contrast between Hudson’s deep, rich, loud gospel-soul voice and Knowles’ thinner, almost white pop style but also the physical difference between them: Knowles is tall, thin, leggy, with a body shape perfectly suited to the Dreams’ costumes (expertly designed by Sharen Davis to evoke the Supremes’ stage outfits without slavishly copying them), while Hudson is built like the classic earth-mother type, chunky and hefty with plenty of lung power to drive those impassioned high notes home. Yet Hudson doesn’t coast on her vocal powers alone; in her dialogue scenes she brings the character of Effie to full life, dramatizing both the injustices wreaked on her and her own self-inflicted wounds.
The men in the cast are almost as powerful. Jamie Foxx so totally becomes Charles Taylor — smooth, unscrupulous, always in control, imperious in his decisions, consistently putting his own and his company’s welfare against the feelings of his artists — that anyone who goes to this movie not knowing who’s in it will have a hard time believing that this is the same actor who played so vividly on the other side of the artist/business divide in Ray. Eddie Murphy handles not only the performing side of his character but makes us feel his pain and understand what drives him to self-destruction. Danny Glover is reliable in a relatively minor role, and in the supporting cast child actor Jordan Wright is so chillingly accurate as the leader of the kids’ group “The Campbell Connection” (i.e., the Jackson 5) that you think, “Too bad he’s going to have to grow up to be Michael Jackson.”
Dreamgirls’ other star is Fatima Robinson, the choreographer. One of the enduring ironies of the Motown Records operation is that, while white rock artists were moving away from formal stage costumes and intricate dance routines, Motown was training its Black artists to dress more flashily and move more tightly and professionally than the older generations of Black performers had. Following in the footsteps of Motown’s original choreographer, the 1940’s Black tap-dancing star “Honi” Coles, Robinson creates dazzling routines and gets the cast members to execute them perfectly. The movie also benefits from the marvelous color scheme of cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler, ably contrasting the glitz and glamour of the Dreams’ performances with the grungy environment that gave birth to their act, the sleazy theatres his artists have to perform in in the early days, and the antiseptic Hollywood spaces Charles Taylor moves his company and his family to once he can afford it. (The closing credits are a visual treat in themselves; this is definitely one movie you shouldn’t walk out on during the final roll.)
The best thing that can be said about Dreamgirls is that it fully realizes the potential power of its story — which has become so bound up with the reality on which it was based that ex-Supreme Mary Wilson (the model for the Lorrell Robinson character) even titled her memoir Dreamgirl. It’s a breathtaking two-hour-and-15-minute ride through a still vibrant part of American culture, showing both the entertainment glories the Dreams (and their real-life prototypes) created and the human cost of creating and selling them. There’s been a lot of talk of late that the big-studio, big-blockbuster way of creating movies is incapable of creating anything artistic and possibly on its last legs commercially as well. Not if it can produce a work of the incandescent quality of Dreamgirls, it isn’t.