Film: Dreamgirls


DREAMGIRLS, originally uploaded by 浮躁.

Finally caught a preview of Dreamgirls on Sunday (which opens in the UK this Friday officially). I managed to drag Ad, F and S to see it with me based on what was probably about six months of hype that I had been drip feeding (including various podcasts, news updates and songs). Seeing it was closure more than anything else for all of us I am sure.

I thought it was two hours and ten minutes of great entertainment. Ad, F and S were not so keen on musicals it turns out. At one point they were exasperating at yet another song. While I wasn't surprised with their objections, these guys really should have their pink cards revoked. Dreamgirls the show has been a cult, a hit and lost musical in the 25 years since it first premiered. The songs from it and the original Broadway soundtrack have been a staple in drag performances, dance clubs, and it even garnered mentions in episodes of Will and Grace. It's a story about black women made by gay white men. Many of the original creative team (including director Michael Bennett and book and lyrics writer Tom Eyen) have died since its opening. For Bennett, who was the creative force behind A Chorus Line, Dreamgirls was his last show.

Notwithstanding this, This was a film that had to be made. The original score sounds cinematic in the first instance. Numbers cut into each other, scenes blend together, and the music compliments the drama. This is evident in the number most known from the show "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going". Sung by the character Effie before the end of the first act it is more emoted than sung. After discovering this show via the brilliant double CD concert recordingin 2002, what I found amazing about the music and lyrics was how there were continuous variations on the same musical themes throughout. Each repetition reflects the progress of the girls' success and the loss of their unique sound into something more generic and popular. But putting the technical prowess of the score aside, at the heart of this backstage story is the lives of three women, their losses and their successes during the civil rights era. Unlike the story of the Supremes which inspired it, there is a happy ending, but perhaps not the once expected.

Translated to film, director and writer Bill Condon (whose previous films included Gods and Monsters and Kinsey), decided to open out the show by bringing in more story about the civil rights era of the time, and to drop most of the sung dialogue. It is a big task to turn an epic musical about a family struggle to stardom into an epic movie about stardom and civil rights. It is a musical, not a history of America or Motown/pop, so it doesn't quite cut it in this realm of reality. By going for epic scope rather than epic storytelling, it reduces some of the supporting characters to small roles. This movie really needed more attention devoted to developing the characters, not to the world around them. Dropping the sung dialogue also makes the show lose some of its pacing and I don't think helped people who (ahem) aren't familiar with breaking out into song...

After seeing it I am not quite sure whether these are major or minor problems. When you know a story backwards it is hard to be too critical of it. At one point during one of Jamie Foxx's songs it was noted I was grinning through it while my companions were groaning. I guess it takes all sorts.

Condon's admiration for the show was evident throughout, including his homage to the Michael Bennett's original Broadway production's look. And in addition to the look there are the musical numbers (almost thirty of them), brought together with a lot of panache and style for the most part. Eddie Murphy as James Thunder Early was astonishing and Jennifer Hudson gave a terrific performance as Effie. Her presence lifted the movie onto another level. Going for drinks afterwards at the very smart bar at the Young Vic, Ad thought she was a bit stereotypical in her "Mamma's getting tired" routine but I figured if I drank for two years straight, I might be a bit weary walking up several flights of stairs. Besides, I thought she was tame compared to some of the ladies I know... I only had one mojito so I avoided doing my Effie interpretation...

All told, this movie can hold its own. It may try to be too many things for too many people, but it was a pretty darn good effort. And maybe the most interesting thing about this film is the revived interest in the stage production. In the meantime I suspect the film will have legs for some time... And I'm sure when the remixes make their way to the Vauxhall clubs it will grow on some people I know... Some people just need a funky house mix to change their opinion... Personally I can't wait for the Sing-alonga version... You don't need popcorn with this film, you need sub-titles and a bouncy ball...

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