The most remarkable thing about this film is how old fashioned it is. Bill Condon has managed to “reinvent” the musical by simply ignoring MTV, and for that I guess many a purist are quite satisfied. The camera doesn’t move so much; the editing is not pushed to front and center; performers are allowed to sing and emote in full and medium shots. There is little razzle-dazzle (Krieger and Eyen ain’t no Kander and Ebb, that’s for certain and Bill Condon ain’t no Baz Luhrmann for that matter). Is it entertaining? Sure, in fits and starts.

Everything written about Jennifer Hudson is true; she’s the heart of the film and she gives it everything she’s got (she’ll win her Oscar; it’s almost too good of a fit, but Beyonce will probably walk away with her own statue for the “original song” she helped co-write). Nevertheless, those groups out there searching for a new diva to project their dreams onto have found one in Hudson (much as they did with Jennifer Holliday twenty-five years ago). The film soars in a few sections but it is, more often than not, earthbound as it expends a great amount of effort packing so much story into 122 minutes. It’s a faux bio-pic about the mercenary rise of a black recording company (think Barry Gordy and Motown); it’s a faux bio-pic about the rise and fall of the Dreamettes (their lovers, boyfriends, and family members); it’s a glamorous tale of stardom and power; and it’s a social history of black entrepreneurship (not to mention the white man’s appropriation of aformentioned product) during the sixties and seventies. The biggest problem however are the songs. They just don’t live up to the work the film’s narrative is attempting to honor (Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Jackson Five, James Brown, etc.). Eddie Murphy is a lot of fun to watch but his character is somewhat marginalized by the drama and he ends up the victim of a cliched plot contrivance. It’s nice to see Danny Glover on the screen again. Jamie Foxx is somewhat out of his element (he kind of talks his way through songs and is constantly upstaged) not to mention the fact that the film transforms his desire to control his own destiny into something villainous (black masculinity gets the short staw in this story). The mise-en-scene is over-stuffed, but there are some set pieces that linger in my memory. I’m not sure exactly what all the fuss is about, but it was worth seven bucks and probably best to see it on the big screen if anyone cares. Plus, Jim from “The Office” shows up for a cameo (alongside John Lithgow wearing what must be the worst wig of 2006)!

23 thoughts on “Dreamgirls”

  1. I loved this movie, in spite of all its faults: Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, and the obviousness of the lip-synching. I am, in fact, going to drag Gio to see it. (Gio, look at Jeff’s point about the social history of black entrepreneurship — it won’t be so bad! È un film politico! Dai!)

    To buy my own ticket for the movie last night, I had to overcome an initial hesitation produced by calls for a boycott of the movie. Now, I don’t want to revive the old debate I remember from the last time I was on this site, concerning the efficacy or general wisdom of film boycotts. But let me explain this one; just bear with me. The boycott, in case you hadn’t heard, was proposed because of Eddie Murphy’s involvement in this movie. This show is after all, a gay classic written by a gay man and beloved by gay theater queens for decades. Many gay bloggers took offense at the casting of Mr. Murphy because of his virulently homophobic and anti-AIDS-patient tirades (seen in his concert movie in the 1980s). His staff has issued an apology but many people don’t considerate it sincere. Then again, he does make donations to AIDS charities now so financially it’s probably a wash.

    ANYWAY, I thought that the boycott idea was interesting for this film considering that the boycott is based on “minority” concerns and considering that this is a film about assimilation. “Assmilation” meaning that the film is about how the mainstreaming of black music in the US came about at great artistic costs. It also suggests that the black capitalists responsible for mainstreaming black music were no better (no less exploitative) than the white capitalists who had contrived to prevent its mainstreaming. I am not really going anywhere coherent with this as an analogy, but it would seem that this film about black-white cultural assimilation still has the power to be a lightning-rod during the current debates about the assimilation and watering-down of gay culture.

    Also, let me just agree with this film commenter who says that it is simply *pathetic* that they put in that original solo for Beyoncé Knowles. In case the link doesn’t work, Lady Bunny’s point is this: just at the point when the original script is driving home the point that Beyoncé’s character has a weak voice devoid of personality, she goes and sings this new song where she emotes to high heaven. (Even so, still not as much emotion in the whole song as Jennifer Hudson’s sung-not-lip-synched one-liner “This time, Effie White’s gonna … win.”) Nice way to pull a Diana Ross, Beyoncé.

    This brings me to my final point, which is to agree with Jeff that Jennifer Hudson is amazing. I have never before been in a cinema when the crowd applauded for several minutes in the middle of the movie, as they did last night for Ms. Hudson’s “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” Get ready, Gio, because I’m Telling You You’re Going.

  2. The Pony is back!

    OK, here’s what interests me. Lil’ Pony is right; this musical is rooted in gay culture–white gay culture to be honest. White men gazing on black women (and professing their love for the plus size black woman at that), marginalizing and vilifying strong black men, etc. And Bill Condon is a white gay male. Does anyone want to unpack some of the complexities at work in this arrangement. Is this film a kind of minstrel show for gay white men? I’m being provocative obviously, but there is something “not quite Black” about this film that intrigues me.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with all of the above (except, perhaps, the marginalization and vilification of the strong, verile, heterosexual black man).

  3. Wow–this is smart and engaging. Almost makes me want to see the film, but I fear that I’d rather read these posts then see the film. Plus I don’t have a Pony to take me (or make me), so I’m kind of doubtful it’ll be seen before it arrives in the disc in the red envelope.

  4. Jeff, can’t we say that a considerable if not overwhelming quantity of gay cultural production is a “minstrel show” of some kind, at least until recently? It’s just that usually the players have feminine make-up on instead of blackface. In an extreme version of this, critics have even proposed that Almodóvar’s female characters up through the 90s were gay men cast as women (over-simplyfing the argument to translate it into identity-politics-speak). Representation of explicitly gay themes being outlawed, masquerades were in order.

    Anyway, if we allege exploitation and political naïveté in alliances between white gay men and black straight women, then we should question the gender politics of drag queens. I’ve read white straight men problematizing the racial angle more often than the gender angle. Not that they should be pitted against each other for the purposes of debate.

    I agree that there is something potentially mammy-ish about the gay-white-male side of what I’m optimistically calling an “alliance.” But there is also something potentially transformative, especially since this is a phenomenon not limited to the screen or the page.

    P.S. (written in margin): Isn’t it just Jamie Foxx’s character who is villified? I thought the scene with Eddie Murphy’s character in the Miami nightclub was interesting because it showed how black male modes of cultural expression were perceived as a threat by white women and the male guardians of their propriety — whereas the female black singers alone posed no such threat and could therefore become cross-over successes. The story’s marginalization of Eddie Murphy’s character is extremely easy to read as a representation of the music industry’s marginalization of black male artists, which suggests that it is not just an unthinking reproduction of that marginalization. And Keith Robinson’s CC is *extremely* sympathetic — unless he’s not bastardly enough to be considered virile.

  5. Pony’s careful, cautious articulation of an “alliance” seems more useful — is identification necessarily appropriation? A la Douglas Crimp (in “Right On, Girlfriend!”) and Pony’s argument, does the film open up “a politics of alliance based on relational identities” (not ignoring but trying to work through/past “old antagonisms based on fixed identities”)?

  6. Yeah, Murphy’s character is not vilified so much as he is tamed, contained and expunged (which runs counter to the history as James Brown and his contemporaries–Ike, Sly, George C., Prince, etc.–were given more room to grind their stuff, so to speak, during the sixties and certainly the seventies). CC stikes me as little more than a “punk” in Dreamgirls. He’s a nice guy but nice guys don’t build empires. He is “overtly” sympathetic. Danny Glover’s character just seems resigned. Hey Pony, I don’t know the answer to this, but was there (SPOILER) an illigitimate child in the original Broadway book?

  7. Yes, there was an illegitimate child in the original Broadway version.

    But I don’t see what’s so wrong with the male characters taken as a group. [SPOILER] CC and Danny Glover’s character redeem themselves by serving Effie and by confronting Curtis. Eddie Murphy’s end is tragic as Effie’s nearly was. And if CC doesn’t count as an example of black male heterosexuality because he is too much of a “punk,” that’s fine; but I don’t see what’s so wrong about the plot’s punishment of unbridled male ambition in the story of Curtis.

  8. I’ll not argue with you and I agree my take isn’t as simple as I desire it to be; these issues were, nevertheless, on my mind as I watched. You are right, the film does not offer up a wholesale indictment of black masculinity but there was something about Curtis’ raw passion to make something for the community out of the community that I found worth rooting for and the film undercuts him at every opportunity. The film (and the show I imagine) is more interested in the singing, dancing black subject than it is in the black subject as CEO (in the age of Oprah, such interests strike me as old fashioned, a retroversion if you will).

  9. Yes, and I’m intrigued that the movie made Curtis more negative than in the original stage version, which I never saw. Since I was unaware before seeing the movie that there was this prominent story of Curtis as an entrepreneur, I found the whole story of Rainbow Records’ rise extremely exciting. [SPOILER?] The montage showing how the black consumers’ money provided Curtis with the payola funds necessary to finance the Dreams’ access to DJs’ playlists was stirring because it made it seem like the Dreams’ success would be shared by the whole community.

    Speaking of Oprah, I bet she loves this movie. I bet she went to see it with Nate Berkus, the interior designer she made famous!

  10. i don’t think i’m even going to see it on dvd. it’s not the two hours (ha HA). it’s the music, and the singing, and the r&b, and the overflowing femininity (hey, how about you boys discuss femininity too, or is that my sole prerogative?), and all these words ending in -ation.

    what is a curtain call in a movie?

  11. There is a cinematic approximation. I’ve made more over it than is necessary. Let the Pony take you to a musical. I’m thinking you will actually like it; for all my blustering about on the site I must admit I did.

  12. so did Li’l Pony ever drag Gio here? I saw this movie last night–I feel that Jeff’s initial post is right on. The biggest problems for me were the excessive plotting (everything, even full scenes, feels like one of those time-passing montages, with newspapers flying and leaves coming off the calendar) and the weakness of the songs. Not a single pop number is as good as an actual single by The Supremes and the R+B feels very much like a Broadway musical’s idea of what R+B sounds like. Several songs–“Patience” and “Listen,” among the new numbers added to the show, are really quite bad. But I agree that Murphy and Hudson keep the movie alive–I do not know why Hudson is nominated for supporting actress when she is obviously the star of the movie. I’d join in the discussion of black masculinity–except I feel that the characters of CC and Curtis are really cardboard cutouts, I can’t get worked up about it one way or the other. Poor Jamie Foxx here. I did get a taste of what is perhaps the film’s distaste for the black male in the scene where Early drops his pants…during what is actually an exciting, spontaneous performance…but the film seems to take for granted that this is a low point for Early and (SPOILER) it’s his last major action before the overdose—rough James-Brown style R+B is a sign of total decline, a precursor to self-destruction? The movie really lacks a coherent musical sensibility–in that way it’s perhaps a bit of a disservice to its black history (though I thought the disco version of “One Night Only” was pretty good–but again,were we supposed to take it as a betrayal of the ‘authentic’ version represented by Effie’s performance?). The song “Dreamgirls” itself seems rather masochistic, in a way that even The Supremes never achieved, no? part of the problem of the ‘minstrel’ show?

    I’m not sorry I saw this and would have to say I enjoyed it–but I’m glad I didn’t pay $150 to see it on Broadway! And I’m happy for Eddie Murphy who will get an Oscar and hit a high point before the (what looks like) dreck of Norbit comes along (what, fat jokes for 2 hours?). did anyone catch Urkel’s cameo at the start?

  13. Just to try to swing the discussion of the film back to the women for a minute, I learned an interesting thing about the plot recently. Apparently, in the original draft, Effie was to suffer the same fate as Flo Ballard (on whom she was based): dead at an early age after problems with alcoholism. But Jennifer Holliday refused to play the role unless it was made more prominent and Effie given a more uplifting outcome. So they re-focused the story onto the women and onto Effie in particular, transposing the sad death onto the Jimmy Early character.

    It’s too bad that the gay white men’s original intentions were not realized, and poor Jimmy Early had to suffer a fate unintended at the start. Oh, Jennifer Holliday! ;-)

    Neither here nor there, I suppose, but interesting.

    Gio has not deigned to see the movie — yet — but I recently received a gift of the DVD of the movie and am holding nightly screenings in my home at 7pm. What are you doing tonight, Gio? Oh, ok — how about tomorrow?

  14. History suggests Holliday to be a bit of a drama queen herself (having only starred in one Broadway show, the revival of Your Arms to Short to Box with God, which ran for a miserly 149 performances) as she went head to head with the producers because she didn’t want her character killed off at the end of the first act. Still, Eyen and Krieger originally offered the role to Nell Carter, who was in then out for a few drafts until she left for good to star in NBC’s “Gimmie a Break.” Sounds like Holliday and Effie were a match made in heaven as Holliday was obviously indispensible enough to force her character to survive its original demise and become the center of the dramatic action (what, there was a dearth of big-boned, African-American ingenues in America in 1980?). That being said, this “history” strikes me as more myth than reality (Broadway loves its triumph narratives and can you imagine the version in which the only interesting character dies before the first curtain). I’m not saying it isn’t true but it sure is great copy–twenty-year-old un(der)known with a Drama Desk Award nomination makes composer and lyricist quake in their shoes. According to the story/myth (I’ll have to check and see what musical theatre historian Ethan Mordden has to say about the show, if anything), even when the character is brought back to life, Holliday didn’t think the role was big enough for her or her fans (calling Matthew Knowles, who can probably relate given the large shadow Jennifer Hudson casts over Beyonce) and Eyen and Krieger pumped up her volume even more. Interesting that the bland score was noticably ignored as the show went on to collect six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Actress, Best Choreography and Best Book.

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