Monday, January 22, 2007

Sweet Dreams

By Tony Buchsbaum

I remember the moment in late 2005 when I saw the trailer. It wasn’t a visual that caught me, but a single note, repeated like a pealing bell, followed by a few lines of lyric. It was a snippet of Jennifer Holliday’s performance of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” from the Broadway cast recording of Dreamgirls. It took another year, but the film has finally arrived, and it’s just about perfect.

Director and screenwriter Bill Condon, who, according to legend, saw the musical on opening night in December of 1981, has managed to capture the magic, the movement and the awesome emotional power of the show, which focuses on three young Midwest singers—a la The Supremes—who dream of the big-time and find it in a Detroit-based music producer a la Berry Gordy. While not really a Supremes biopic, Dreamgirls does seem to veer awfully close, not that it matters to anyone except Diana Ross. But Supremes or not, Dreamgirls is an unrelenting, unapologetic, unforgettable entertainment, a musical that returns the origins of black-flavored pop and R&B to the fore, giving them their rightful place in the history of American Music.

Now, as wonderful as Condon’s work here, that alone is not what makes Dreamgirls so dreamy. That distinction goes to the cast. Beyoncé Knowles stars as Deena Jones, and though the singer’s onstage persona is absent, she knows what of she acts. Beyoncé, you might recall, was the lead singer of Destiny’s Child, which found itself on the “broken up” road paved by Diana Ross and her galpals way back when. Beyoncé does an amazing job here, in her first starring role. She inhabits Deena in a way that’s almost creepy, and you believe every moment of it. She’s really just a hometown girl caught in a glamorous whirlwind, and though she enjoys it, she also feels terribly out of place.

Anika Noni Rose plays Lorrell, one of Deena’s partners in song. A real Broadway star, she made her name in Caroline, Or Change as the daughter of the lead. She was indelible then, as now.

Jennifer Hudson plays Effie White, the character made famous by Holliday. Arguably based on ex-Supreme Florence Ballard, Effie is ousted from the Dreams just as they achieve the success she’s always wanted for them. Growing up, she’d been the lead singer, only to be replaced by Deena earlier. Freshly booted, she sings the pivotal song, “And I Am Telling You,” and gives the kind of performance that actors can only dream of. I say actors, not singers, but even though Hudson certainly sings the song, it’s her acting that nails its built-in emotion, its by-design ferocity. People have compared Hudson’s performance to Barbra Streisand’s in Funny Girl—and believe me, I’m a huge fan of that performance—but I’d say that undercuts it somewhat. Remember that Streisand had mastered Fanny Brice on Broadway for quite some time. Hudson had no such time to hone in on Effie. Hers, here, is a brave, ballsy powerhouse that gives Dreamgirls its center. Hers is the performance you’ll talk about when you leave the theater—and it’s not even Hudson’s only knockout. Stay for the second act and pay attention to “I Am Changing,” in which Hudson somehow manages to equal the former song’s longing and glory note for note.

If Effie is the damaged-then-resurrected soul of Dreamgirls, its dark and lost core is James “Thunder” Early, played to perfection by Eddie Murphy. Early is an amalgam of James Brown and Ray Charles and others, a true original who nevertheless sees the world pass him by in favor of others. Even though he gives the young girls—known as the Dreamettes—their big break as backup singers, they eclipse him easily, so much so that he becomes, if not a hanger-on, then a past association that stays close, like a remora scavenging for scraps. Murphy is a revelation in this film, a powerful singer and an even more powerful performer. Early’s early, almost naïve, enthusiasm morphs into a realization that he’s done, and when there’s no other savior but heroin, he goes willingly. Murphy’s work here is not about his singing and not even about his dialogue, but about his eyes, his expressions. The feeling is not that he’s acting this, but that he’s living it. Fine irony, then, that this may bring his talent to a new audience, one who doesn’t know from Saturday Night Live and Beverly Hills Cop.

Jamie Foxx, as Curtis Taylor, manager of The Dreams, does a fine job, as well, although the role is pretty thankless. Taylor has a couple of good songs, and Foxx has commented that he doesn’t put his all into singing them because Taylor isn’t a singer. But to me, this is a gross misunderstanding of what musicals are all about. They’re not meant to be logical; they’re meant to be magical. If the songs of Dreamgirls were all performed onstage, he’d have a point, but many are not. He should have given this his all, as the rest of the cast did. If there’s a wrong note here, Foxx is it.

The music of Dreamgirls—featuring several new songs—has been recreated by The Underdogs, acting as producers. Their work here revitalizes songs that were wonderfully vital to start with, giving them a new edge, a new relevance to today’s audiences.

Naturally, there’s a Dreamgirls CD—two, in fact. The single disc features most of the key songs, and the two-disc version features everything. Which one you get depends on how obsessed you are.

If you’re really obsessed, make sure you pick up the remastered Original Broadway Cast recording, as well. There are some newly-released tracks, as well as a second disc of sing-along tracks that you’ll probably never bother with. Still, the new tracks are more than worth the cost.

Dreamgirls, originally created onstage by Michael Bennett, finally makes it to the movies, and it’s as dazzling as it should be. And as if that weren’t enough, by making new stars of Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy, it’s certainly earned its place in cinema history.

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