From the reviews of Dreamgirls that I’d read beforehand, I was expecting to be most impressed by Jennifer Hudson’s much-touted show-stopper “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” That moment fell a little flat for me (as far as emotions, not pitch!), but there were plenty of others that showed off Hudson’s amazing voice—and acting talents.
At least in the movie version (I’ve never seen the stage musical), the most powerful story in Dreamgirls isn’t that of Hudson’s character Effie; it’s the story of black music in 1960s and 1970s America. Then again, as far as Effie’s career mirrors the ups and downs of soul-infused African American music, it’s her story too.
Most of you probably already know the skeleton of the plot: Effie sings the lead for a young girl group from Detroit. As the Dreamettes get taken on by manager Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), they gain fame and popularity—but only within the black music community. The ultimate insult is when a squeaky-clean white teen idol steals a song by the Dreamettes and Jimmy Thunder Early (Eddie Murphy) and takes it to the top of the charts.
At that point, Curtis pours all his money and energy into making the Dreamettes into a crossover success (and his quest comes alive in the simultaneously thrilling and heart-breaking song-and-dance number “Steppin’ to the Bad Side”). But, as usual, success comes at a price. Curtis forces the full-bodied, full-voiced Effie to relinquish the lead, giving it instead to the thinner, lighter-skinned, sweeter-voiced Deena (Beyoncé Knowles), guessing (correctly, unfortunately) that she will have greater appeal for white audiences.
You can see why he does it. You know he’s selling his soul—in more ways than one—but you know he’s in an incredibly difficult situation. Regretfully, from this point on, Curtis becomes a pretty one-dimensional character. All the complexity in the “how far do we go to beat them at their own game?” question gets parceled out to Effie’s brother C.C. (Keith Robinson), who composes the Dreams’ songs. (I particularly liked Robinson’s performance, and I’m sad that he hasn’t received as much recognition as his co-stars.)
It’s hard to compare Dreamgirls to the Academy’s Best Picture Nominees—a group to which everyone thought the musical would belong—because its storytelling method is so different. It still struggles with the problem of making a contemporary musical film (with all the serious subject matter of contemporary musicals) that audiences will relate to. Most of the musical numbers are actually songs performed on concert stages within the film, and the evolution of the songs’ styles tells the film’s story pretty well. For me, the least effective numbers were the ones (like, “And I Am Telling You . . .”) in which a character directly expressed his or her feelings. Much better were the “concert performances” that also suggested something about the character’s current situation (like Hudson’s “I Am Changing” or Robinson’s “Patience”).
Overall, Dreamgirls is definitely worth seeing for its portrayal of an era—and of the struggle of African American musicians during that era to make their music heard, while still making it their own.
Oh, and did I mention that John Krasinski has an itty, bitty cameo as a screenwriter for one of Deena’s potential movie projects? He has one line, I think.
Add comment February 2nd, 2007