Monday, December 25, 2006
There's a little secret about DREAMGIRLS, the famed Broadway musical that gave the world the classic anthem "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going." A little secret that has only been shared by a small coterie of people. Simply put, that secret is this: DREAMGIRLS isn't really very good. A book that is a pretty tired parade of showbiz rags to riches cliches (guess what? Fame Isn't All It Is Cracked Up To Be) and a couple of pretty good songs. Under Michael Bennett's then-revolutionary staging, the show did supply a couple of goosebump moments (including "And I Am Telling You"), but my principal memory of DREAMGIRLS is of Jennifer Holliday throwing the single greatest temper tantrum in the history of live musical drama. She was electrifying. Not much else about the show was, though.
So it can't be a surprise that my hopes for the film were not high. Could Bill Condon, a perfectly competent filmmaker (KINSEY and GODS AND MONSTERS) work the cinematic equivalent of Michael Bennett's magic on this rather uninspiring material? Or would he follow the lead of the unspeakable Rob Marshall in creating the atrocious film of CHICAGO, easily the worst film ever released by a major studio, casting a bunch of non-singing actors, or worse, non-acting singers, shooting each scene from every possible angle but the correct one, and editing the whole mess with a rusty blender?
If DREAMGIRLS never quite hits the lows of CHICAGO, it doesn't entirely hit any new heights either. The characters are two-dimensional, at best, and the story remains trite and largely uninteresting, except for a couple of finger-snapping payback moments. The casting is mostly better than expected, happily, and thank God they can all sing. Eddie Murphy delivers the film's most assured performance: his musical numbers and his book scenes are equally exciting. Jennifer Hudson is getting a lot of Oscar buzz, and her "And I Am Telling You" is easily the film's highlight. The biggest surprise in the film is the comatose work of Jamie Foxx, who brings absolutely nothing to the film whatsoever, delivering the living definition of a one-note performance.
At least part of the reason for the remarkable impact of Hudson's "And I Am Telling You" is that it is the first (if not quite the only) time that Condon actually lets his cast sing for more than a second at a time. All of the other musical numbers are very heavily edited in the way of most recent musical films: there's a cut after every three words or so, from a closeup to a long shot, or to a high shot, or to something else to illustrate the passage of time/make some plot points, or basically to just about anything that will break the continuity of the song and remind you that you are watching a movie. Condon seems particularly fond of showing me the back of his singers' heads. God forbid we should just get a chance to watch somebody sing. Hudson's "And I Am Telling You" is a potent reminder of what musicals are all really ultimately about: the pure pleasure of watching people sing. Condon similarly lets Eddie Murphy's songs and Beyonce Knowles' performance of a new song entitled "Listen" stand more or less on the talents of his actor/singers rather than on his editor, and these scenes are by far the best in the film as a result.
Think about that for a minute: actor/singers who can actually sing. After the horrors of Woody Allen's misguided EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU and the aforementioned CHICAGO it is a real treat to hear people who know their way round a song get a crack at a movie, rather than Renee Zellwegger, Richard Gere, or that Gerard Butler person.
Worth seeing? Sure. Why not. See it in a theatre with good sound.