Dreamgirls: A Real Musical

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There
is lots of buzz about Dreamgirls.
Some of it is well-deserved. It is true that Eddie Murphy sings
his own songs. It is also true that he is a decent singer of rock
and roll and even soul. He sang in the 1980s, but the public has
forgotten — which is not surprising, given his level of success
in his singing career. The man is versatile.

There ought
to be more buzz about this aspect of Dreamgirls: it’s a musical.
The characters actually sing at each other. It’s not just a collection
of on-stage performances of varying intensity and glitz. The movie
is a musical. Yet it is not being promoted or even reviewed as a
musical.

Dreamgirls
is a film version of the 1981 play, which ran for years on Broadway
and on the circuit. Why it took two decades to bring it to the screen
mystifies me. It is loosely based on the career of the Supremes.
They were the most popular of the female pop music groups of the
mid-to-late 1960s. Diana Ross went solo, and did so successfully,
though not with the impact of the group.

The three girls
can sing — actually four; one is replaced, and the replacement
is good. They are very talented musical performers, and decent actresses.
There are no weak performances in the film. The characters are believable.
Jamie Foxx is good as the promoter who makes the Motown sound, but
anything he does after Ray
will be like the performances of Ben Kingsley after Gandhi.
There are only so many spectacular roles in a career.

I must admit
that my favorite scene in the movie is completely anachronistic.
The young black songwriter, seeking a breakthrough, writes a song
that Eddie Murphy performs in a career comeback. It’s a clever song.
It sells locally. Then some white kid does a really lame cover version
and makes a pile of money. That was the Pat Boone/Fats Domino syndrome,
but it had ended by 1958. But the scene is a riot for those in the
audience who remember Pat Boone’s rock and roll phase. (Statistically
speaking, for this to happen, it had better be a large audience.)

This was supposed
to be happening in the 1960s. There is a photo of President Kennedy
briefly on-screen. There is a speech by Martin Luther King. In other
words, this was the early ‘sixties. That was the gap era in between
the death of Buddy Holly (1959) and the arrival of the Beach Boys
(1963), and then the Beatles (1964). There were plenty of black
groups making a living. They were just not very good. It was the
era of the Bobbys: Vinton, Darin, Bland, and V. The only Bobby anyone
remembers today is Dylan, and he was a folkie in the period in which
the movie begins.

Yet there is
a degree of truth to the script. There were cover records in 1957.
There were blacks-only radio stations that provided material for
white singers, who got famous. Big Momma Thornton did record “Hound
Dog” before Elvis did (1956). But “Hound Dog” was one of the worst
songs Elvis ever recorded.

The kids could
tell the difference between Etta James and Georgia Gibbs in 1955
if they got the chance. As soon as the disc jockeys started playing
the real thing in large cities, record sales told the A&R guys where
the money was. It was not with covers. That transformation happened
long before the Supremes arrived on the national scene in 1964.

They walked
into a well-developed record company. So, the movie’s story of the
rags-to-riches entrepreneur who made the company by handing out
cash to disc jockeys — another phenomenon of the late 1950s
— is believable only for those who were not teenagers or older
in 1960, which is most of the audience, of course.

The group’s
lead singer who gets replaced is reminiscent of Etta James. The
actress is just right. She made her breakthrough on American
Idol. She sings very well, she is a decent actress, and she
has the best role in the film.

The songs are
good, and the stage routines are spectacular. These girls can move!
Their opening number is the movie’s show-stopper. The other routines
are flashy and even visually dazzling, but they never reach the
musical level of the intro. Three-on-three against the Supremes,
the “Dreamettes” would simply have blown them away.

There is something
else. It is biological. How can women — Effie excepted — with
waists that narrow even move, let alone sing and move?

I
suppose the film’s main weakness is the length. It is long on plot
chronologically, not dramatically. The movie is a drama. It wants
to be taken seriously as a drama. That was never true of the golden
age of musicals, from Oklahoma
to Fiddler
on the Roof
. The audience was not there for the plot line.
This is not the case with Dreamgirls. So, the mixture is
a bit out of harmony. But just a bit.

If I could
buy a DVD with just the musical numbers, I would.

January
24, 2007

Gary
North [send him mail] is the
author of Mises
on Money
. Visit http://www.garynorth.com.
He is also the author of a free 19-volume series, An
Economic Commentary on the Bible
.

Gary
North Archives

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