Monday, January 01, 2007

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."


Blogger Kamikaze Camel said...

The problem I find with musicals that are just characters performing songs on stage is that the numbers do become a tad superfluous because they're just singing songs as good as they may be and as well staged as they may be, they're just people singing songs on a stage. The times that musicals really soar are usually when, as you say, characters just need to spontaneously break out into song wherever they are.

Like, I can go home and watch somebody performing a song in concert on YouTube, but I can't go home and watch an actor singing a song through the streets of Paris or New York or something with dancers and big theatrics and so on. know what I mean?

The movie's out here on Jan 22 I believe, so til then...

1:00 AM  
Blogger adam k. said...

How to justify that spontaneous breakout into song is the endless dilemma of movie musicals. It's all about establishing the rules. The best of them do it brilliantly. Some, like West Side Story, can pull off straight-out-song-and-dance all the way through, because it's so clear from the outset that we're in this heightened musical world. Some, like Moulin Rouge and Dancer in the Dark just flat-out subvert and reinvent the genre from the ground up, and that works fine, too.

The problem with Dreamgirls is that it doesn't really follow any rules. It appears at first to be a "backstage" musical in the vein of Walk the Line, which would've been perfectly fine, but then in the middle, people randomly start singing. There is no rhyme or reason, no discipline. It's kind of like how Phantom of the Opera started out as a full-out opera (i.e. ALL singing), but then there were those random few bits of spoken dialogue. It was like, "what?"

I really wanted to love this film, and I feel bad being so down on it, but I was just REALLY disappointed.

1:26 AM  
Blogger Kamikaze Camel said...

Yeah, I've read that. Like, it's a "backstage musical" as they say and then characters break out into spontaneous songs.

And it wouldn't have been hard to just change some bits around to make all the songs on-stage-numbers or what have you.

But, eh, I haven't seen it so I really wanna wait to say.

1:29 AM  
Blogger adam k. said...

Yeah. See, the thing is, other than "And I Am Tellin' You," ALL of the spontaneous random songs were expendable. None were memorable. They were all either kinda dumb, or just so unremarkable that I don't even remember them. The best music was the onstage stuff with the Dreams.

And "I Am Tellin' You" kinda suffered from being one of the unjustified random songs, and also from the lack of build-up with Curtis and Effie's romance (it was just never fleshed out). Plus, as much as Condon talks about having to "make it work as a movie," it really seemed with that number like they were just trying to copy the rhythms and staging or the original.

I just think that if they'd stuck to it basically being a backstage musical, and then done something more creative with the signature song, everything would've geled much better... but it might work more for me on a second viewing. We'll see.

3:08 PM  
Blogger Craig Hickman said...

Everything in Dreamgirls worked for me. Quite well. And I like and remember all of the music. It's a backstage musical and an R&B opera. It doesn't need to be one or the other to succeed.

As for character development, I could go on and on about characters as archetypes and their effect in art, but I won't.

Moulin Rouge, a "genius" film that reinvented the film musical?

I missed that memo.

Eye candy for sure. But I've tried to watch that film three times, and it always put me to sleep.

That's not easy to do.

2:36 AM  
Blogger adam k. said...

I guess just differences of opinion then, Craig.

But it's not that I don't appreciate character archetypes. Little Miss Sunshine, for example. LOVE. And those characters are basically archetypes of family roles. But the writing and acting made them real to me. Not so much in Dreamgirls.

My main beef with it is that it seemed that Condon just took the easy way out... didn't try to adapt it in an interesting way, and the film suffered for it. And I LOVE musicals. Just didn't think this one was so good.

4:50 PM  

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