Friday, February 02, 2007

Mark Hester Reviews Dreamgirls

I dragged Mark along to Dreamgirls a few days back and neither of us were impressed. Below, you'll find his review - which is, perhaps, somewhat kinder than anything I would have offered and also rather more entertaining and involving than the film he is critiquing..

For a film which deals with such universally loved themes as pop music and rags to riches, Dreamgirls is a film which frustratingly fails to deliver. About its only saving grace is that it models the contrast between artistic integrity and commercial sell-out quite well as it details the conflicts between honest song-writer Cee Cee (Keith Robinson) and the single minded, determined selfishness of svengali figure Curtis (Jamie Fox). Elsewhere the film is marred most markedly by the poor quality of the sixties pastiche songs. Not only are the lyrics vapid, but the arrangements are simply insufficiently echt. Few people can pull off a musical pastiche successfully – Neil Innes and Elvis Costello come to mind - and I was hardly surprised when the credits rolled to reveal two names – lyricist Tom Eyen and tunesmith Henry Krieger – who were complete unknowns to me.

Dreamgirls starts promisingly enough, a talent competition in a theatre in a poor part of Detroit, where various musical acts vie against each other. It is quite easy to suspend disbelief and coast with the film in its initial stages; the theatre seems rather too well equipped, the way the house band strike up the tune for each act in turn with apparent ease. Early events occur at a frenetic pace. Three friends — Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), Deena Jones (BeyoncĂ© Knowles), and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) — take part in the talent contest in a singing group called "The Dreamettes", later to be renamed the Dreams. As the smooth talking Curtis signs up the enthusaistic trio and approval beckons, it all seems to go swimmingly and one is left wondering when the pathos will kick in.

Pathos comes soon enough, but director Bill Condon seems in such a rush to get there that he then begins to take stylistic shortcuts to get his point across. As the Dreams’ early career takes off in utile symbiosis with Curtis’s used Cadillac business, the montage device is over-used to painful degree – we see multiple planes and buses as the group go on tour accompanying gyrating, emotive solo soul singer Jimmy Early (Eddie Murphy), we see money accumulating in safes and orders in account books. Seldom since the spinning newspapers of a 1930s ‘Big Broadcast’ movie has this brand of shallow symbolism been so overdone.

Half way through the film, in moments of intense emotion, sung dialogue takes the place of speech. This comes as a surprise and an unwelcome one at that. The film is not billed as a musical, but rather a movie containing songs which are supposedly integral to the storyline. In any case, the sung lines do not come in the form of songs, but rather, are delivered as if improvised on the spot by the actors. If this can be said to resemble any respected artistic form (and thinking of one is a tall order) then opera comes most readily to mind. Few people, apart from opera purists, can recall anything sonic from an opera apart from the overture, but this is not the main problem here. The sung dialogue is quite simply excruciating and more than anything else, unnecessary. The extent of the own-goal is evidenced by the all-too audible “Oh God” from the woman in the seat next to me as soon as Effie opens her mouth to emote for the umpteenth time. When the abandoned Effie is left to pour out her heart for what seems like hours in a darkened theatre in a kind of Houstonesque soliloquy, we share her pain, but surely not in the way the director had in mind.

Just as contrived are the attempts to model the musical style progressions of the time. This is handled most ham-fistedly when a frustrated Early vents his ire at having to perform sad songs by single-handedly and spontaneously inventing funk on-stage. After appearing on stage as James Brown, Early suddenly transmogrifies into Jimi Hendrix as he succumbs to an almost unheralded heroin overdose. The hand wringing, the grief, the issue of how much Curtis is responsible for Early’s death is glossed over, as if his demise was written in as an afterthought.

As for individual performances, BeyoncĂ©’s is respectable but unremarkable. Jamie Fox appears to be having rather too much fun in his portrayal of the manipulative, roguish Curtis. Danny Glover is totally wasted as Jimmy Early’s original mentor Marty Madison. Though the best crafted individual performance is certainly Jennifer Hudson as Effie, it is her shortcomings we notice most, like the sung histrionic dialogue mentioned above which marks her out as the American Idol also-ran that she is. The Michelle McManus parallels do not end with adiposity.

The faintly amusing sight of clean cut white pop act Dave and the Sweethearts covering one of the Dreams’ songs jars uncomfortably with the rest of the film and is quite incongruous here. The fact that Effie has given birth to Curtis’s illegitimate daughter, inexplicably referred to as Magic, is hardly given the attention it deserves and even when Curtis and nine year old Magic end up side by side at the last ever performance by the Dreams, Jamie Fox handles the scene in an uncomfortable ‘what do I do next?’ manner.

The one genuinely poignant scene in the whole film is where we see a despondent Effie, down on her luck and out of music, pass the Detroit car showroom where Curtis had started his career, now dilapidated and abandoned as he has moved on in more way than one. However, that the parallels between Effie’s predicament and Curtis’s former place of work stand out so much only serves to illustrate how little the rest of the film has to say when it could have been so different.

So basically, don’t see Dreamgirls. Watch Grace of My Heart instead, or save yourself £6.50 and listen to the Stax or Motown compilation cd that probably resides in your collection.

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