The last nine days have afforded a number of positive assessments in the wake of “Dreamgirls”’s press screening debut on November 15. Critics and journalists have found themselves left exasperated by the sheer electricity of it all. It makes sense, really, because “Dreamgirls” is a film that never allows the viewer to catch up. It never slows down to take a breath, and that can be an exhilarating experience. But while being left breathless can be riveting in the cinematic environment, it is never as much when it comes at the expense of narrative cohesion.
The problem with “Dreamgirls” isn’t the capable razzle-dazzle. It isn’t the meritorious technical achievements across the board, from striking costumes to lush cinematography, riveting sequence editing to bombastic sound design. The problem with Bill Condon’s film version of Michael Bennett’s stage sensation is that it isn’t a film at all. It is a collection of stunning moments and musical numbers, strung together without any sense of stability, collecting itself as something more akin to an extended VH1 “Behind the Music” special than anything else.
The background has been covered extensively. Adapted from the hit Broadway musical (which was loosely based on the careers of Diana Ross and the Supremes), “Dreamgirls” tells the story of Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni-Rose): The Dreams.
Pushing through an epic journey of fame and fortune, first as The Dreamettes, back-up singers for the electric James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy), then as their own act, The Dreams, the girls confront an ugly and weathered road of success that tugs at the binding stitches of their life-long friendship. Everything turns on its head when manager Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx) pulls the buxom and not-as-visually-pleasing Effie from the lead vocal spot in favor of the prettier face, Deena. From there, the narrative conveys the ups and downs of the music business, staying with the times, keeping up with what sells, its characters disregarding artistic ethics all the while.
It really is a fabulous story, one that worked well on stage. It remains a difficult task to make this brand of theatrics work on film, however. The notion of characters randomly breaking out into song has to, and can, be editorially justified. Condon did a fantastic job with this in “Chicago,” blending the conventions of the stage with the conventions of the cinema through definitive expertise. “Dreamgirls” is a different sort of cinematic effort, so comparisons might not be fair. Regardless, the writer/director seems much more interested with “big” than he is with “intimate,” and whether it be the smallest of independent film efforts or the grandest of studio blockbusters, “intimate” is what sells drama on celluloid.
What’s more, this decision to hold fast to the electricity of the music leaves the entire affair at arm’s length. I can’t comprehend a serious filmgoer sensing real emotion from these characters, let alone getting to know them. The audience has little time to become familiar in any case, as one musical extravaganza bleeds into the next in a way that recalls a DJ spinning hits in a club with the sole purpose of keeping the crowd moving. Maybe that was the intention here, but it doesn’t work. The resulting residue is chilly, unfamiliar and even uncomfortable. Who are these people?
The performances can’t really be faulted here, because honestly, there isn’t a lot asked of the cast members beyond exuding theatrical, rather than cinematic, emotion. The multi-lauded Jennifer Hudson must be mentioned at the top, especially with talk of an Oscar campaign switch to the lead actress category.
It would be hard to dispute that this young lady has a voice to die for. She wrenches the feeling out of her numbers from deep within her gut. The major stumbling block comes in the character’s biggest moment, however. The “I Am Telling You” sequence leaves the first-time thespian stumbling around in a way that might have been believable from Jennifer Holiday, but seems like playing make believe for a 25 year old American Idol. When she isn’t singing, the performance ranges from direct and pointed (when she has a great line) to self-aware and conflicted (when she doesn’t).
Beyoncé Knowles has little to do other than be a pretty face, task at which she excels. Even still, her number “Listen” is one of the best sequences of the entire piece. Jamie Foxx has a lot of obvious fun in the role of the film’s antagonist, while Danny Glover and Keith Robinson pull down convincing supporting turns for the most part (Robinson’s mid-song mannerisms during “We Are a Family” are, regardless, chuckle-inducing). The real acting showcases of the film, however, come from Anika Noni-Rose and Eddie Murphy.
One of the more interesting relationships covered by the “narrative” of “Dreamgirls,” Murphy’s and Rose’s chemistry ignites far beyond any other coupling in the film. Murphy’s work in particular is a testament to his showmanship (certainly in his final number, a pre-hip-hop riff that was much more exciting than I had expected it to be after reading the script). His character does not get the proper benefit of adaptation in the middle of the screenplay, however, which makes him work even harder for those third act high points. But what he does with the material he has to work with announces a new level for this seasoned comedic actor.
The technical aspects are expectedly achieved. Virginia Katz’s editing is expert craftsmanship, quick and frenzied – the obvious creative mandate from on high. Sharon Davis’s costumes are the best of the year, spanning a number of decades and making a vast amount of character commentary. John Myhre’s production design doesn’t call attention to itself in the way one might have expected it to, while cinematographer Toby Schliessler fills the frame with a wide range of colorful hues that makes the film one of the more visually pleasing experiences of 2006. The hair and makeup design is organic across the board, and the sound
design is crisp and flawless.
But even still, the talk on “Dreamgirls” will continue to be the awards season. It almost seems unfortunate that there has not, and seemingly never will be, a way to distinguish the film’s personal merits (or lack thereof) from the expectations it set for itself all year long as the prohibitive awards frontrunner. Perhaps a culture of film awards discussion is to blame for that. Meanwhile, the Oscar season looks to be changing shape in the latter weeks of 2006, as consultants begin to see their opportunities and studios look to capitalize on missteps.
With that in mind – and I don’t believe anyone has really said this in print yet – but I’m not sure “Dreamgirls” can be considered the frontrunner in the Best Picture race anymore. It is too thin, too distancing, too cold – and it doesn’t have the Miramax campaign power behind it that ushered the similarly criticized “Chicago” to greener Oscar pastures in 2002. Let’s be honest. Had Harvey Weinstein not been in the mix that year, “The Pianist” would have taken the cake – the warmer, more sentimental, but all the same more “important” entry in the film season. Might it be time to start looking elsewhere, past the groupthink and beyond the all-too-easily agreed upon “consensus?” I think so.