Dreamgirls: Art or Product? Let's think...
It's the latter, I'd say. And not a great one, at that.
I was VERY excited about this year's flashy new musical, but came out of the theater dissapointed. The basic test of a film's essential quality (for me) is whether I leave the theater feeling good, or feeling like it could've been better. This film could've been better.
The charges that it races through without fleshing out its characters are true. But even beyond that, I felt a general tinge of mediocrity pervading the entire movie. It started out fine - fun, flashy, firing on all cylinders - but before long, the generically pretty cinematography and snappy music weren't doing it for me, and the hundred-cut-a-minute montages and overbearing underscore got annoying. Soon, the whole thing - right down to the way the actors walked - felt mechanical.
A few moments of musical transcendence aside, this was generally a paint-by-numbers, hit-all-your-marks exercise with no real directorial point of view. And the writing was lazy, underlining key points STRONGLY, and then moving on to the next plot point. I was shocked back when the globe announcement revealed Condon's double snub... but truth be told, he deserved it. His writing and direction are nothing special.
For that reason, the performances, though all good, never manage to connect in the way they should. Murphy was fine as Jimmy Early, but all his scenes were so rushed that I never really got to know him. Noni Rose is quite good as Lorrell, and gives the impression that she'd be capable of much more than what was asked of her. Beyoncé, though far from brilliant, was serviceable as Deena, too, though one wonders if she's in on the joke that she was cast (and works) in this part because she comes off as shallow and generic.
As for Hudson... she definitely comes closest to transcending the mediocre direction (some people call that "walking off with the movie"). In fact, her verve and killer musical numbers make her ALMOST worthy of all the praise she's getting... but not quite. It's a great debut (it really is), but best supporting actress of the year? Not really. Her singing is fab, and she's perfectly cast, but the performance reads a touch broad at times, and her Effie's never given much depth; she is after all still stuck in the same shallow film as her co-stars.
And that film just didn't work. As a music video, it worked; as a film, it didn't.
"You know everything about music," Deena says to Curtis. "But movies are different."
Tell me about it. Stringing together a bunch of musical setpieces does not a great film make. It CAN make a decent stage musical; stage shows can compensate for a lack of complex characters and situations with the marvel of their liveness, the connection between audience and performers. Also, stage musicals have no burden of "realness." They're going for something else entirely. But film is different. Film's strength are its intimacy, its painstaking recreation of "realness," and in real life, people don't just start singing. If you make them sing on film, you have to justify it, whether through casual fantasy sequences (Chicago), desperate fanstasy sequences (Dancer in the Dark), or genius reinvention of film language (Moulin Rouge). You just have to give some kind of context. And I've always felt that what made musicals great - at least on film - was the contrast between the musical numbers and the non-musical "naturalism" around them. You have to NEED that music when it comes. And much of the music in Dreamgirls is just not necessary.
Stage musicals often have little dialogue and action between songs, but unfortunately, Condon tries desperately to recapture what might've worked on stage, while rarely utilizing the advantages of film. He seems to think his film can flow just by mimicking stage rhythms, and he's wrong. I've never seen Dreamgirls onstage (I was still unborn during its original Broadway run), but I'm sure there were better ways of translating it. From the essence I gleaned from reading about it, hearing music, watching clips - even from seeing the trailer, for Chrissake - I know it could've made a better movie.
Dreamgirls apologists have several defenses they usually trot out. Let's go through them:
"But musicals aren't supposed to be serious."
Sorry, not true. The best musicals certainly are... though this one isn't asking to be taken seriously.
"The source material wasn't great in the first place; you can't fault the filmmakers."
Bull. Some of the source material is brilliant. "And I Am Telling You" is magic when done properly (for proof, just watch it on YouTube). Other numbers like "One Night Only" make great film spectacle. But some, like "We Are Family," just read as cheesy. Answer? TAKE THEM OUT. Replace them with more narrative and character development (maybe elaborate on the background of civil unrest, give us more specifics, show us why we should care about these characters). Keep what works and chuck what doesn't. You don't have to be blindly faithful to the stage show, Bill; you've already proved that by adding new numbers.
"Dreamgirls was not a backstage musical on stage, so it shouldn't be one on film."
I'm not so sure about that. I think this film could've worked as a backstage musical, i.e. have characters only sing and dance when "diagetically" onstage, i.e. not when they're just sitting around talking. At the very least, wait to have the characters sing until they NEED to sing. That is the first rule of writing musicals: characters sing because it's the only way for them to express their deepest feelings. Having more downtime between the songs would help to create that need. I think it might've been very effective, for example, if the only non-onstage moment of singing was Hudson's "And I Am Telling You," and if it were staged in such a way to show some blurring of reality at that point. As is, the number plays a bit silly, however brilliantly sung. But regardless of what approach would work better, adaptation requires some experimentation to see what actually works. But this film makes it look like Condon just didn't bother trying.
All in all, Dreamgirls is not bad, per se, but it aims low, and still only partially succeeds. This resolutely middlebrow, flashy but lazy adaptation could've been something much, much more. Condon is grappling with some great themes here: art vs. product, the necessity of compromising one's identity to be popular, and the civil rights movement as background to social assimilation. Plus he has all kinds of backstage drama to work with (any story about divas up in arms has plenty of potential for greatness). Unfortunately, he approaches none of it authentically. It's all cut, cut, cut, and light everything beautifully (god forbid Effie look bad while on welfare). Shout your lines with lots of sass. Use the music as a crutch for simple storytelling. This kind of narrative laziness is EXACTLY why musicals have a bad rap. And I'm calling Condon out.
This is not to say that I didn't enjoy myself watching it. It was enjoyable enough. For every "gag me"-level sappy "We Are Family" number, there was a rousing showstopper like "Dreamgirls" or "One Night Only." And any of Hudson's solos soared. But Condon never bothered burrowing beneath the surface of the glam... and even the surface was kinda rocky. In the ultimate irony, a film about art giving way to product feels less like art, and more like product.
You know, I don't blame Jennifer Holliday for being pissed at these people. If they'd used MY voice in their teaser without my knowledge, and then used it to sell their confused and hypocritical corporate product of a movie, I'd be pretty pissed at them, too. So bitch your heart out, girl... you're the greatest. Much too great for this film.
Verdict: "Flashy... but disappointing."