Friday, January 26, 2007

DREAMGIRLS is uneven and problematic

DREAMGIRLS is not so much good or bad as uneven and problematic.

It's a thinly veiled musical biopic of The Supremes focusing on the story of how musical impresario Berry Gordy made Diana Ross the lead singer over Flo Ballard. He decided that the real money was to be made by featuring a softer, higher-pitched voice singing bland pop hits to the dominant white demographic. This required sacrificing Flo's soulful, powerful voice as well as the original R&B sound. It also required studiously avoiding "race records". As riots raged in Detroit and artists like Marvin Gaye were asking "What's going on?", the Supremes carried on singing about love. Flo tragically died at the age of 32 having been pushed out of the lead role, out of the band and into alcoholism. Diana Ross became one of the most successful recording artists of all time. Together they left a collection of outstanding pop songs.

This story was transformed into an award-winning musical called DREAMGIRLS in the early eighties - a musical few in my generation will have heard of, let alone seen. So unlike a movie like CHICAGO, I came to this film fresh. Judging it simply as a musical I have to say that it fails horribly. (And I am a big fan both of musicals and of the Motown sound.) Barring an up-beat soulful number called Move On at the start of the film and a heart-breaking power-balled called And I Tell You I'm Not Going around a third of the way through, the songs are largely bland and forgettable. The Supremes may have sung pop but it was great pop - catchy hooks, light, up-beat, singable. Their movie-doubles, The Dreamettes, sing anodyne pop songs that drift over the ear without making an impression. And worse than that, the movie drifts on and ever on with one inocuous power-ballad after another. I felt like I was trapped in a ghastly cruise ship. At one point, around two thirds of the way through, the crypto-James Brown character, James Thunder Early, sings a race song which is clearly meant to mimic Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come. It's so bland and uninspiring compared to the real thing that I was wondering why they just hadn't stuck to the originals in all humility.

So how does DREAMGIRLS fare as a film? There are a lot of positives. It's handsomely filmed and the sixties and seventies costumes and settings are brilliantly recreated. The camerawork is fluid and you get the feeling that writer-director Tim Condon really understands how to film a musical. I'd love to see him get his hands on a better subject. Eddie Murphy really does deliver a moving and subtle performance as one-time headliner who slips into drug abuse as he tries to suppress his soulfulness, and his vocal performances are impressive.

And what of Jennifer Hudson, the American Idol contestant who is now nominated for an Oscar? Here we have a woman with a voice of supreme power, control and emotional range. She is as good as everyone says and then some. Can she act? Should she be up for an acting award? I'd argue yes, although some of the message boards would say no. And the reason is that when you watch her singing "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going", this is acting. This is not simply rehearsing the lyrics of another song. This was the only moment of the film where I hand that spine-tingly feeling that you should get with the big number in a musical.

But there are a lot of disappointments.
Jamie Foxx, who was such a revelation in RAY and COLLATERAL, is on auto-pilot here and his voice is too weak for a musical. Beyonce Knowles is the inverse of Jamie Foxx - a great singer and stage presence and face but flailing rather with the actual acting.

So much for the Uneven. Now for the Problematic. The problematic part of DREAMGIRLS is that is sails so close to the truth of what happened - with characters, album covers and narrative arcs that exactly mimic the story of Motown. This means that as an audience member I (perhaps unfairly) want the movie to respect the memory of the people it portrays - most notably Flo Ballard. And frankly, the way in which this movie unfolds in the final third strikes me as sweetening up a tragic story that deserves to be told properly. Now, I normally hate people who want movies to substitute for history teachers. But I do feel that when you co-opt so much on one woman's personal history, you need to see it through.

Another irony is that this is a movie that accuses the Berry Gordy and Diana Ross characters of selling out on their race in order to achieve commercial success - of suppressing their true musical roots to produce a saccharine product more palatable to white America. But with a few exceptions, this is exactly what the movie does - delivering music Celine Dion would be very comfortable with. Some of this is and should be deliberate - the Dreamettes' hit "Cadillac" has to be lame because it's deliberately "dumbing down". But I was astounded that the songs that serve as dialogue or monologue off-stage were so, well, bland.

DREAMGIRLS is on release in the USA, Australia, Italy, Mexico and Spain. It opnes in Argentina, Chile, Germany, Israel and Italy on Feb 1st; in Iceland and the UK on Feb 8th; in Hungary, Thailand, Austria and Denmark on Feb 8th; in Brazil, Estonia, Sweden and Japan on Feb 16th; in Netherlands, Singapore, Finland, Turkey and Venezuala on Feb 23rd; in Belgium and France on Feb 28th. It opens in Hong Kong and Norway on March 2nd and in Russia on March 8th.


  1. I loved the movie. It was ENTERTAINMENT--not social/political comment. I saw it twice, will see it again.

  2. Sorry. Even on the level of pure entertainment I don't find those songs up to scratch. And frankly, you can't say it's not political when the KEY POINT is that Effie is dumped because Deena appeals to the white demographic.

  3. i wholeheartedly agree to your review-the songs were bland and dull with few exceptions and halfway through i felt a bit bored-and when it finally ended i thought i had put my expectations for this movie way too high

    -excellent review

  4. DO NOT post ads on comments - I will simply delete them