Monday, March 05, 2007

Dreamgirls (2006)

Dreamgirls (Bill Condon, 2006)

I've heard the complaints, that there's barely anything cinematic or worthwhile with the film adaptation of the beloved musicale Dreamgirls. The music and the lyrics pale in comparison to Bill Condon's previous adaptation of a musicale Chicago (2002), which was turned into an entertaining but shallow string of mediocre song-and-dance numbers of Hollywood A-listers by director Rob Marshall. It was touted as an Oscar frontrunner (it has the directorial pedigree, the triumphant backstories, the musicale glitz and glamor), but failed during the final stretch. Is it really a failure? I think not, it's actually an alluring film --- a musical movie that had its song numbers as essential narrative devices rather than mere showstoppers or gimmicks. True, it looks more like a montage put into music rather than a film, but that complaint only enhances the film's extraordinary flow. It's not Condon's best, but it's also not an embarrassment to the competent director's filmography.

I think Condon understands that he doesn't have a great material like Bob Fosse's Chicago to back him up. The tunes in Dreamgirls, except for a few, are barely memorable and hummable. The lyrics don't have the catchy wit and humor or even intelligence that give Fosse or Stephen Sondheim's works an edge. Dreamgirls, is pop musical set in 20th century America. This disposable quality to the musical's ditties make Condon's adaptation work a lot easier. He conveniently tells the story through the songs, and there are barely any wrinkles and folds to his storytelling, as when Effie (Jennifer Hudson) abruptly ends a dialogue straightly spoken with a sung line, there's no distracting effect since the setting dictates musicality from its characters. The songs now serve as an enhancement to the filmmaking rather than plain gimmickry, as what I have noticed with recent musicales (Chicago, The Phantom of the Opera (Joel Schumacher, 2002), and to the largest degree Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)).

When Condon adapts the musicale's only showstopping number, it literally stops the show. The free flowing merging of pop musicality and Condon's filmmaking give way, and the effect is tremendous. It makes you understand why American Idol-reject Hudson received the praises she gathered for her performance. She trembles the same way her voice, her character, her ego are in the verge of crumbling, and Condon understands that this is the film's moment. It's quite sublime.

This brings me to the film's biggest problem: the human drama that operates in the film overshadows the film's importance. Dreamgirls is supposed to be a commentary, not a mere show that razzle-dazzles yet the film overplays the melodramatics, the back stories, the underdog struggle of Effie that it fails to say something about the music industry in general, or how its blossoming was a betrayal to what the music really represented. The character of James Early (Eddie Murphy, in probably his most electrifying performance ever) becomes a mere dramatic sidestory than a poster for how the musical 'soul' has been transformed into a commercialized hack. Moreover, the lead Dream singer Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles) transforms into a non-entity, a mere boring moral yardstick to the demonized Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx).

Condon is a very aware director. His biopic Kinsey (2004) is probably the most resounding of recent biopics, simply because Condon accurately and explicitly depicted the society's sexual urges as blanketed by its immaturity, which emphasizes the title character's psychological and narrative struggles. The same can be said with the wonderful Gods and Monsters (1998). With Dreamgirls, there seems to be a faint acknowledgment to the times. Curtis releases a record of Martin Luther King's famous speech as he struggles to put African-American musicians in America's consciousness; Effie's jealousy bursts alongside the civil rights riots; but these are so subtle and slight that it felt like they were done to merely keep the film into a historical perspective, instead of commenting something deep or resonating about that time in history, or the music industry as a whole.

Given a choice of concentrating on the human drama or pumping up the film's importance, it felt like Condon chose the former which is really unfortunate because I think Condon could have juggled the two; he is that capable a writer. I really can't complain about the final result, it certainly did move me as I was setting myself up for a disappointment. It's a good film, probably the best musical film Hollywood released recently (which would exclude Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001), which is definitely the braver musical).

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