by Gary North
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
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