Courtesy of MovieXclusive.com
Its Oscar time and magic is in the airor so it might have you believe. And what better way to kick off than to talk about this years most Oscar nominated and controversially excluded Best Picture nominee in Bill Condons Dreamgirls. Several stage to screen reinventions later such as Chicago, Rent and The Producers wherein some were abortions and some were perhaps as decent than anybody could hope for, comes a story modeled closely after the formation of Detroits Motown Records. Its mostly based on how Diana Ross was chosen to be de facto leader and face of The Supremes, effectively relegating its lead singer, the late Florence Ballard to backup vocals and later lead to her ouster from the group. Indeed the mirror reflects Beyonces own Destinys Child since its inception that includes her own domineering manager, revolving door of talents and a stronger emphasis on marketing than on the music. Not to mention the shocking physical similarity between a younger Diana Ross and Beyonce.
Dreamgirls cleaves closely to the contours of the 1982 musical, which had the mercurial Effie White's (Jennifer Hudson) part beefed up for its original Effie in Jennifer Holiday that really made that character thrust itself upon audiences. Effie is big, loud and proud and has a greater character arc than Beyonces in Deena Jones where she does her best impression of an empty shell. And aside from their relatively equal screen times, what audiences are bound to notice in Hudsons effervescent quality and dare I say, her off-screen success story, is a much more interesting and appealing aspect to sink their teeth into. Theres no doubting that her presence is that special something that will be taken away with a smile even when it dawns upon them that shes more a bona fide theatrical vocal performer than she is a screen actress.
And in another off-screen tale of career revitalisation, perpetual scene-stealer and massive screen presence, Eddie Murphy plays James Thunder Early - the James Brown-esque soulster that takes on the trio early on in their newfound careers. Perhaps little more than an amalgamation of his sketch-show characterisations in the beginning, Murphy lets fly with his once (last seen circa 1985) impressive acting chops late on with a ponderous look of profound sadness that reveals the compromise and ruthlessness of the business they are in. But then the outstanding performances and sublime musical numbers stops mattering when the film gets lost in transition.
Condon sails past the eras as easily as you can say bubblewigs. The dramatic highs and lows resemble a roller coaster ride that never lets any frisson or anticipation to be built. By the time the film rolls on to its peak the much talked about and much appreciated show-stopping aria built around Effie White - we already know where its priorities lie. Its not concerned with crafting credible characters with strong emotional cores nor is it anxious to make a substantial point on racial politics in the volatile music industry, but it is important to the film that it awes and entertains through its electrifying compositions and arrangements. Its rat-tat-tat dialogue is a prelude to another song, rife with meaning to be gleaned and a story to tell, no matter how flimsy and clunky it ends up becoming. But more power to Hudson and Murphy who already look like genuine steamrollers in the face of their respective competition come this year's biggies in the Oscars despite the films apparent discolouration of African-American music.
I suppose theres an element of Dreamgirls that does feel dated and perhaps even outlandishly offensive in its constant fallback on clichs. And as I must critique films in a contemporary framework and do not want to presumptuously give an opinion from a perspective other than my own, I feel the film possibly runs the risk of trivialising the struggles of black music throughout the ages and disrespects the powerful phenomenon that has laid the groundwork for the current American music scene. It definitely camps it up in favour of any real discourse on its historical groundings and character struggles despite its callously hinted scenes of unfair racialism that never is given the time to stew in its vileness or the real mechanics and impetus behind the payola system. It all serves Condons sprinting narrative, to fit in the rags to riches to rags story while not getting his hands dirty in reality but to glitter his film in the glamourised realism of disco and pop.