Clapping at the movies never made much sense to me. What’s the applause supposed to signify? “Way to project that film!” But that didn’t stop me from applauding wildly at the end of Jennifer Hudson’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” smack dab in the middle of Dreamgirls. My applause was involuntary; it was the same kind of applause that comes when you’re witnessing an incredible and moving live performance. And if Jennifer Hudson had stepped off that screen, thirty feet tall, I wouldn’t have been surprised – the performance may have been on celluloid but it was so immediate and real and emotional that it might as well have been live.
“And I Am Telling You…” is going to go down in history as one of cinema’s great musical moments – look for it fifty years from now in montages alongside Gene Kelly splashing around in puddles – and it’s without doubt one of the most electric and amazing moments of 2006. While the rest of Dreamgirls never rises to that level (how could it, though?), the film is a tremendous work of art, a joyous and heartbreaking work of beauty. It’s the best movie musical in decades.
Dreamgirls began life as a Broadway show 25 years ago; based loosely on Diana Ross and the Supremes, the show was a massive hit. The story begins in Detroit in the early 60s as a local girl group, The Dreams, sing at a talent show. The lead singer is Effie (Hudson), a curvy woman who belts out songs with an impossibly big set of pipes; Deena (Beyonce Knowles) is the beautiful one with a decent voice; Lorell (Anika Noni Rose) is the mousy one destined to always be the third girl. The girls are spotted by part-time manager, part-time Cadillac salesman Curtis Taylor Jr (Jamie Foxx), who convinces chitlin’ circuit superstar James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy) to take The Dreams as his new back-up singers. Effie’s brother, C.C. (Keith “Green Power Ranger” Robinson) rounds out the group as a young songwriter with a visionary gift for pop music. The Dreams eventually outgrow Early and go off on their own. But Curtis realizes that Effie isn’t photogenic enough to front the group, so he makes Deena the lead singer. Tensions rise in the band, Effie leaves and Curtis and the Dreams (with a new singer) ascend to the heights of the pop charts by smoothing out the soul from their songs.
Hudson is the revelation here; a loser on American Idol, it didn’t seem likely that she could handle the role of Effie, which is the emotional center of the whole film. But despite a few shaky moments here and there, Hudson nails it. The secret to her success here is that she’s able to act better while singing than most other actors can with dialogue. I’m going to go on record saying that this is one of the all-time classic debut performances; I don’t know if she can keep it up in the future, but Hudson has at least one incredible performance on her filmography.
Effie’s story is the center, and when she leaves The Dreams the film suffers in a big way. The focus turns on to Deena, and while Beyonce Knowles in no way embarrasses herself, the character just isn’t as vivid or interesting – which is part of the point in the first place. It’s Jamie Foxx who keeps the movie humming in the later scenes as Curtis builds his record empire. Dreamgirls is about a lot of things – it’s about the co-opting of black music by white musicians, it’s about how young, eager and brilliant singers and songwriters get screwed by the people who write their contracts, it’s about loyalty and honor – but what’s most interesting is the struggle between art and commerce at its core. The Dreams are a great group, and CC is a terrific writer, but they could never break through to the pop charts and the wider (read: white) audience without Curtis’ help. But when they make it big he continues to exert tyrannical control over every element of their lives, right down to wardrobe. Money is being made, but is art being served? When CC writes a “message song” for “Thunder” Early to sing as a comeback, Curtis shuts it down – message songs don’t make money, never mind that the song is great. Foxx’s Curtis gives Davey Jones a run for “Best Villain of 2006” – he’s a complete scumbag, and it’s only made worse by the fact that he’s often right.
Dreamgirls has a third fantastic performance, and it comes from a corner as unexpected as Jennifer Hudson’s: Eddie Murphy reminds us why we used to love him so much before he insisted on playing multiple roles in dumb family comedies. It’s not that he’s raunchy in Dreamgirls, because he isn’t. It’s that he’s charismatic and loose as James “Thunder” Early, and maybe it’s that he can understand the character’s essential conundrum – as he gets older his whole act becomes about taking out the rough stuff, the James Brown soul, from his songs and crooning sappy love ballads. When Murphy starts his first song it’s impossible to forget his James Brown impersonation on Saturday Night Live, but there’s no dissonance here – that imitation grounds us immediately in who James “Thunder” Early is. That baggage (on top of great vocals and some really sobering dramatic moments that will surprise Murphy’s fans) is what makes this casting a coup for director Bill Condon.
Dreamgirls is episodic in nature; it’s basically a fictional musical biopic. That means the story plows forward through history, diving in and out of seminal moments in the history of The Dreams. I’ve heard complaints that the film lacks proper connective tissue, but I don’t see that at all. Condon relies on a lot of montages and more than a few “historical context” bits where newscasters or DJs explain to us what’s going on, but it works. It gives the film, which clocks in over 2 hours, a constant energy and movement.
And throughout the whole picture, like a constantly beating heart, is the incredible music. What is going to make Dreamgirls a crossover hit is the fact that most of the songs are done in a rocking R&B style as opposed to turgid showtunes. A couple of songs exist in “Broadway” versions (“Family” is a song I have to skip on the soundtrack), but most of the tracks have a groove and a move that will have people swaying in their seats. Songs like “Move” and “Cadillac Car” and “One Night Only” sound like legitimate hit songs from the era. If it wasn’t for the half-spoken intro you could probably fool friends into thinking “Fake Your Way to the Top” was a Motown b-side.
What makes Dreamgirls special as a film, and unique among modern movie musicals, is that it doesn’t go the route of adding a new song to the end credits to qualify for an Oscar. The movie version of Dreamgirls has FOUR new songs, and they’re woven into the story – woven in so well that someone I know who saw the show in its original incarnation didn’t catch them. The big Oscar bait track is “Listen,” sung by Beyonce, and it deserves every ounce of gold it’s going to win. But it’s “Love You I Do,” which so seamlessly fits into the story and which moves the plot and relationships along, that seems most integral. I don’t even know how the original show could have told this part of the story without that song.
There are great movies that work on the brain, and there are great movies that work on the heart. Dreamgirls is going for, and wins, the heart. It’s not a brainless movie at all – music history buffs will get a kick out of the slightly alternate history of black music this film offers – but it’s a film that makes you feel, in a big way. Dreamgirls is a movie that you get lost in, swept away by, that you surrender to. It’s loud and big and exciting and beautiful and sad and joyous and moving and impossible to ignore. Dreamgirls is the movie musical that the others over the last few years have been building towards, and even if it isn’t quite “musical” enough for my tastes (Condon makes most of the songs performance based, so the movie has very few instances of people just breaking into song – I love that convention, and wish modern audiences could just sit back and enjoy the spectacle of a couple of strangers meeting for the first time and serenading each other), it feels like a revolutionary step forward… or is that back? Either way, when you walk out of Dreamgirls you’ll be humming the songs and realizing that the state of cinema is just a little bit better than you thought it was before the movie started.