The proper way for me to raid my own writing history to align with the major release this weekend entails unearthing my original radio review for the animated classic Beauty and the Beast, from 1991. I did write one at the time. And I was fairly proud of it, if I’m recalling correctly. That review is lost to the eroding waters of time (or at least taped into a box that hasn’t been accessed in a good long time). So I’ll instead look to the director of the new live-action take on Disney’s finest animated effort (Pixar movies don’t count). This review of Dreamgirls first appeared at my former online home.
The new movie musical Dreamgirls has two distinctly different halves, separated by the number “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” which has to stand as one of the most impressive showstoppers in the annals of Broadway. Of course it’s not hard to spot that the song signals the act break when the production is on the stage, but it’s more than that. The two sides of the movie are quite different in their effectiveness. Some of that may derive from shortcomings or strengths inherent to the material, but there’s some clear filmmaking choices shaping the impact as well.
Writer-director Bill Condon previously helmed the marvelous Gods and Monsters and the compromised Kinsey (and Candyman II, what the hell?) but the main bullet point on his resume that landed him this long-developing gig was the screenplay adaptation for the Oscar-winning film version of Chicago. In that film, he notably invented the notion that all of the music performances were the imaginings of the obsessive Roxie Hart, so desperate for her place on the stage that she sees the whole world as a grand music performance. Here, Condon has the luxury of the primary storyline charting the rise of a Motown-styled “girl group” called the Dreams (a veiled-so-thinly-you-may-not-even-notice-the-cloth-hanging-there version of the Supremes) and the freshly invented Detroit record label they help make into a major force. For the most part, characters don’t break into song while walking down the street, but while they’re on stage or in a recording studio, keeping it more grounded in reality, which modern audiences seem to need with their musicals.
That hurts him somewhat, too, as there are a few moments that require that sort of old-style staging with characters singing to one another not because they’re putting on a show, but because they’re expressing emotion or even passing along exposition through song. These few moments are rare enough that they sit somewhat uneasily in the film. More problematically, much of the first act is an overdirected jumble that progresses too rapidly. We feel like we’re watching the characters proceed without really knowing them, as Condon seems more interested in creating some razzle dazzle with his shot choices and editing techniques.
Sometimes that distance from the characters is a natural extension of their very construction. Eddie Murphy plays James “Thunder” Early, a consolidation of James Brown, Little Richard, Bobby Womack…hell, by the time he shows up in a colorful knit hat singing “message songs” it starts to seem that Early is meant to be every black male who carried a tune in front of a microphone between 1955 and 1975. The character is a skilled performer of R&B, soul, funk and even delivers a proto-rap song in a defiant television performance. Presumably we’ll need to wait for some sort of DVD extended director’s cut to see him master delta blues and invent trip hop. That the character has any recognizable through-line at all is a credit to Murphy’s performance. In the past, his best work has been marked by a sort of freeform creativity, a whipsmart fluidity that finds the comic truth (or, on occasion, the poignancy) in any given moment with a considered liberation from the rigors of maintaining the bigger picture of the character or the film. He achieves the opposite here, completely subsuming any tendencies he might have towards caricature, shifting quickly past the most obvious earmarks of his pop chart inspirations to lock onto the echoing disappointment of Early’s life. It may not even be accurate to say this is Murphy’s career-best performance, but it’s the first time I’ve seen him approach a role as an actor rather than as a performer.
Generally, the strength of the performers helps that second half gel into something potent and moving. Condon finds a more agreeable rhythm, letting the stories unfold gracefully while concentrating his fussier energies on the more enjoyable diversion of filling the background with entertaining pastiches of Motown hallmarks, from album covers to performers. Besides Murphy, Jamie Foxx is excellent as the film’s Berry Gordy stand-in, quietly establishing the firm, menacing strength and decisiveness of a powerful man. And then there’s Jennifer Hudson, keeper of the most tragic and triumphant story arc as Effie White, the member of the Dreams whose place at the front is supplanted by a prettier, safer singer played by Beyonce Knowles. Hudson performs “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” with the appropriate raw abandon and just pulling off that moment practically guarantees an invite to the Kodak Theater. She’d solid throughout, playing Effie’s self-defeating righteousness with a smooth, on-target emotional efficiency, but it’s the centerpiece song that really sticks. The belted anguish of the moment hits the heart hard and elevates everything that follows.