Monday, May 14, 2007

The Offense of Dreamgirls

The kind of musical Hollywood has been clamoring to revive in the past few years held at its core a great fantasy: that as long as there are songs to sing, happiness is accessible to all. Soul, with its direct relation to the blues, is faithful to the opposite idea. In the vitality of its rhythms and urgency of its vocals lies a belief that, as long as there is misery to be experienced, the need for music will remain one of life's constants.

Despite these separate philosophies, the Motown-inspired Broadway hit Dreamgirls proved (mostly with its famous number “And I Am Telling You”) that musicals’ attention-hungry, happy-go-lucky showstoppers and soul’s most unhinged emotions could complement each other. Jennifer Holliday, who won a Tony for the lead role of Effie, made a credible soul performance entirely out of emotional peaks, bravely unearthing the music’s affinities to the grotesque. The yelping, whooping Linda Jones may have been the only major precursor for this theatrical pitch of emotion, which made soul songs sound as if they originated not in the church but in the insane asylum.

The new movie version of Dreamgirls—which botches the fascinating story of cultural miscegenation at the heart of Motown’s success—boasts a dream of a cast, right down to a lively cameo for Loretta Devine, but no one here has come to lay it on the line the way Holliday did. As the Supremes-like girl group of the title rearranges on racial terms and defangs its sound for crossover, the high moral and artistic stakes are barely sketched out for us. Director Bill Condon seems to doubt the ability of movie musical traditions and the tremendous talent onscreen to carry any weight. Only headliners Beyoncé (as an impressionable, mediocre talent modeled after Diana Ross) and American Idol reject Jennifer Hudson (as Florence Ballard, former leader and tragic artist) inspire any interest as they tussle for the film’s spotlight.

Having on her latest album become a worthy descendant of James Brown, Beyoncé has the volcanic energy and authentic handle on funk to usher soul musicals into movie history. She can also comfortably be named among the most luminous screen goddesses, like those George Hurrell photographed in the ‘30s, and one of the few things Condon gets right is the gay-male idolatry of his fashion-photo images: a parade of Beyoncé as Dorothy Dandridge, as Pam Grier, as Cleopatra. It’s a shame she never gets beyond the doe-eyed requirements of her role. Scene after scene depicting her as a wilting flower crushed by Jamie Foxx’s Svengali are pasted in from the most pedestrian R&B videos and send their only emotional signals through the well-styled mess of her hair. It’s unsettling to watch one of the most animated life forces in showbiz reduced to the role of a mannequin.

Hudson is equally unprepared to act and, in the showstopping number, lacks Holliday’s remarkable control and instinct for movement. Mirroring Hudson’s American Idol exposure, the unappreciated diva Effie never gets to really sing; her voice is always contest-ready, out to prove itself, as if articulating emotions were too dull a pursuit. Her rendition of “And I Am Telling You” wrenches applause out of the audience the way an Olympic runner does, not because it bares the soul but because it tests the limits of the human body. When Effie auditions at a nightclub, the name Billie Holiday floats off a character’s lips almost as mockery: it’s a joke on the movie that it claims Lady Day’s subtle phrasing and thin, reedy voice as a touchstone while exalting tonal thickness as a sign of racial authenticity—as if this were a soul singer’s highest virtue and only value.

What Dreamgirls is most guilty of perverting is the legacy of Motown’s great songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland as pillars of pop and of the Supremes as a mischievously brilliant group. The film also dodges the conflicts that led to the invention of soul and its status in our national mythology. The music’s battle for an integrated audience, as well as its compromise of Christian and secular impulses, have forever linked it to what was political and religious about the civil rights movement. It’s one of the crucial stories in popular music, but Condon (despite having two very good, historically evocative biopics under his belt) quickly puts it to sleep with a few race-riot montages and a lot of neon lights.

At the same time, he alerts us to his embarrassment of the musical genre with confused MTV-editing and fumbling transitions between dialogue and song. There's none of the unabashed, cross-medium delight in cinema, theater, and karaoke pop that made Moulin Rouge the only musical this decade worth buying into (well, besides Björk in Dancer in the Dark). Scene after scene, Condon's missteps contribute to the sense, quite rare in musicals, that the singing is not spontaneous action but a chore to be carried out. At a time when artists like Tony Kushner (with his recent musical Caroline, or Change) are at least trying to complexify the obvious connection between '60s black pop and politics, this laziness is particularly offensive. Dreamgirls’ vague outline of two great American artistic traditions—and one of our most towering historical moments—answers everyone’s high hopes with incoherent disaster.


Helen said...

I love your reviews. Are you too busy studying go to the movies? No new reviews have been posted on your blog and I'm looking forward to reading a new one from you.

You are a born critic - int the true sense of the word.

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