2nd March 2007
Dreamgirls is the best film I have seen at the cinema for a good while; this may not be that much of a recommendation since sadly we rarely go the cinema nowadays! But most trips over recent years have left me sadly disappointed so it was a wonderful change to walk out of the cinema with that ‘buzz’ which a powerful film never fails to give.
At the heart of Dreamgirls is a potent myth. I do not mean by this that the myth is necessarily untrue, but that there is something which appeals to an idea in its audience. For me the question with a myth of this sort is not the degree to which it resembles a given reality, but whether it is ‘good’ – that is progressive, liberal, humanist (I will not go as far as socialist! – that would be to ask too much). In the case of Dreamgirls the myth is ‘good’. The myth is that a pure and brilliant music becomes corrupted and adulterated as it is made subject to the market-place, as capitalism gets its hands on it; this is given a further specific twist in Dreamgirls in that it is black music being made acceptable to a white market.
The narrative of Dreamgirls is simple; a three piece female singing group (Hudson, Beyonce, Rose) get taken on (by being in the right place at the right time) as backing singers to Murphy (I am using actor’s rather than character’s names throughout) a big star on the black circuit. Foxx is a would-be entrepreneur who wants to break Murphy into the white (and therefore infinitely more profitable) mainstream market. He succeeds with Murphy’s record by going round the country bribing DJs to play it (he obtains the capital for this by selling off his car dealership). However, when he wins a spot for Murphy to play live at a prestigious white Florida club, he sees that Murphy’s sexuality and the ‘blackness’ of his music alienate the audience. Foxx drops Murphy and forms the Dreamgirls – but he demotes Hudson and makes Beyonce the lead singer – Beyonce is slimmer, her voice softer, her ‘blackness’ less pronounced (Foxx has meantime become Hudson’s lover). The Dreamgirls are a massive success but Hudson grows increasingly alienated; she becomes pregnant and is – understandably – enraged when Foxx criticises her weight gain – she misses an appointment and Foxx replaces her in the group. The Dreamgirls go from strength to strength while Hudson, now with her daughter, is living in poverty off welfare. Murphy has also descended into alcoholism and drugs – when he attempts a come-back he is brilliant as ever but cannot resist mooning the audience; fired again he commits suicide. Hudson, with the aid of Murphy’s old manager Glover, makes a comeback in a small black club; she releases a brilliant single but Murphy gets to hear of it and ensures all copies are destroyed and a new, vastly inferior version made by The Dreamgirls. Finally Beyonce, who has been Foxx’s partner since Hudson left, rebels against his control freakery; she discovers a copy of the Hudson single. At a farewell concert for The Dreamgirls Beyonce introduces Hudson – she sings for her daughter watching in the audience; Foxx follows her gaze and the movie ends with the penny dropping that this is his child. Thus a possibly happy ending is conjured up (this happy ending is of course an absurdity – but heck that’s what musicals need and when they are as clearly contrived as this it doesn’t really matter).
In terms of form what is really striking about Dreamgirls is the extent to which it goes beyond the traditional musical format into the world of opera. So that there are passages of recitative where all the dialogue is sung rather than spoken – the most prominent example of this is in the central and climactic scene where Hudson is fired from the band. All the characters (Foxx, Hudson, Beyonce, Rose and Leal – Hudson’s replacement) have their own parts to sing which lead into Hudson’s great song And I’m Telling You (reprised on last weeks American’s Idol by Lakisha Jones but that’s another story). This use of recitative was both striking and fascinating. The effect to me seemed to be to both point up the unreality (as is inevitable with recitative!) and to heighten the emotion so that the scene gained enormously in dramatic intensity.
Returning now to the story and the myth. It is of course based on the story of Motown – I know Gordy threatened to sue and the makers of the film then issued grovelling disclaimers but, as one might say, everybody knows. And of course on The Supremes. Again I don’t think the precise nature of its relation to these specific realities matter one way or another. The central components of the myth – about corruption, racism, the relation of art to capitalism are what matter. These are what give the film its power. They are illustrated in striking, often witty ways; for instance there are two appearances – in the background – of a boy singing group whom Foxx manages ; they are doing an absurd, utterly nonthreatening, anodyne and adolescent dance – very clearly based on the Jacksons, these are used to contrast with the very adult, very emotional raw power of Hudson and Murphy’s performances. Funnier still is the transformation, early in the film, of one of Murphy’s songs into a sexless, pap performance by a cheesy, grinning, blond white boy. Capitalism can take anything and regurgitate it drained of all its meaning, all that was originally there. Now the film does not of course convey this in anything like a systematic manner (it would never have been made in Hollywood if it did). Instead the source of the evil is located in the character of Foxx. And this is unfortunate because it dilutes the political content. It is true that at the start of his rise to power Foxx is allowed to argue that the means he uses (the bribery) are necessary to obtain the airplay for Murphy – that black music will never be heard and black musicians properly rewarded unless he follows this route. But this is not located in any political context. One of the movies most striking scenes is in the Florida club when a comedian makes a horrible racist joke – it is a vivid and electrifying moment; but there are not many other specific examples. Now it can be argued on the other hand, that to have included more representative of racist white behaviour would have detracted from one of the movies main strengths – that it is so overwhelmingly black; only a few very minor characters are white. But there is no figure offering a different black political perspective – there are references to King and to race riots but that is really all. Perhaps it is felt that enough is done through the music itself; perhaps it is.
It should certainly be said that the music itself is absolutely brilliant. The acting is superb. Murphy is a revelation and Foxx superb. But, again as everybody knows, the person who really transforms Dreamgirls into a great movie is Jennifer Hudson (in the same way that Minelli transforms Cabaret into a great movie – we should never discount the enormous power of the star). Now here of course we have another very specific musical myth enacted before our eyes – the unknown who becomes a star (42nd Street, Singin in the Rain, A Star is Born etc.) – but in this case it really is Hudson’s first movie. Although she was not of course an unknown, having been on American Idol. A great deal of utter rubbish was written about this in the UK by people who had clearly never seen AI, let alone the specific – third – series in which she appeared. So I will get diverted into writing about American Idol after all! I have seen every series from the second on-wards so believe I am able to comment. In the first place AI consistently turns up great singers; this makes it very different from the UK equivalents (Pop Idol, X-Factor) which until last year and had not managed to turn up one great singer in 5 series – even a committed internationalist like me was finding this a little hard so I was delighted we found one at last in the shape of Leona Lewis. There are no doubt lots of reasons for this – a much bigger population in the US for one! – but the predominant one would seem to be the enormous role that church singing plays in American life (it plays of course a tiny role here and then mostly hymns). Anyway the third series of AI was of particular interest because it had no less then 3 great black female singers – Fantasia, Latoya and Jennifer; none of the other 12 finalists were in their class. One week when there were about 5 or 6 left in the competition these three singers were in the ‘bottom 3’ in terms of votes accumulated; one had to be eliminated and that one was Jennifer. There was much talk at the time about the possible racism of the vote. It was certainly peculiar that Latoya was also eliminated before the final, which Fantasia contested with a very ‘wholesome’ girl called Diana – that particular final was a complete mismatch, but even so apparently evangelists ran a vigorous campaign against Fantasia because she was a single mother ( at least we don’t have that in the UK! worse singers but very few rabid Evangelicals 🙂 – Fantasia answered these people with the coruscatingly brilliant track BabyMama on her first album). However the point here (and I know I have strayed far) is that at the time I did not question the elimination of Jennifer in terms of a contest with Fantasia and Latoya. At the time I regarded Fantasia as the greater talent, and I still regard her as the greater talent. For me she is currently my favourite young singer on the planet. But she would not have been suitable for Dreamgirls. Her looks, her height, her voice, her style are far too ‘different’ and unique. She is quite unimaginable as a Motown singer. And who knows whether the camera would love her? Fantasia is a wonderful unique artist. Jennifer is a quite brilliant singer and actress. Two great talents. Setting them up in opposition and denigrating AI because Jennifer did not win is an absurdity. (As a final word on AI this year’s series looks as though it may repeat the scenario outlined above – there are 4 excellent black woman singers who seem a cut above any of the other competitors at this stage – though it is really too early to call; I will try to keep track of this on the blog).
After a lengthy digression let me return to Hudson. Her performance is remarkable. There are moments when she is off-screen when I found myself waiting for her return – which is unfair to the film but a tribute to her. Not only is her singing of the highest calibre – real goosebumps stuff – but her acting is tremendous too. The comparison with Minelli is interesting because at one point when she sings in the club I thought I detected in the blue back-lighting something similar to an effect in Cabaret – the song she sung at that point, while utterly dissimilar in style, had I thought some connection lyrically with Minelli’s Maybe This Time in Cabaret.
In conclusion, Dreamgirls is a great musical and a great movie. Not only are the music, the performances, the pacing spot-on but behind it there is a powerful moral force. It deals with racism and capitalism. It deals also with feminist issues on which I have failed to touch – the question of Hudson’s looks against Beyonce’s, the way in which she is treated by Foxx, the way she is treated in the welfare office (another great scene). Dreamgirls shows that musicals can be both great musicals and political.
1. Ellen left…
Cinemart had a trailer for Dreamgirls but the movie never came. Why? It’s a black movie, and this “art” movie house has an audience which is just about 95% white. The owner (an independent man so he is not secure at all) lost his nerve.
US society is utterly segregated except in the heart of a few cities and in the public schools and US government jobs (that includes the military).
In order to see it, I’d probably have to go into DC. I’ve done that for some films, but not many :).
Is the American Idol you watch different from the one that plays on US TV? Laura watches the US one; she tells me Rob (her partner) detests it because (she says) it sends up some of the people who come to perform, in effect mocks them, and so from her I’ve gotten the idea that AI connects to reality shows even if it “showcases” people with talent eager to “break into” a career.
Thank you for the comment Ellen. I am absolutely staggered by what you say about the movie not being shown in your local cinema!
As to AI – yes it is the same one. The criticism made is a familiar one and I am never quite sure how to react to it. Yes the judges – and in particular Simon Cowell the British judge and force behind the show – can be mocking and harsh. This is particularly true of the audition rounds, when tens of thousands of people turn up in the hope of making it on the show. But there is a real problem here – many of these people have absolutely no singing talent whatever. Some appear in various ‘wacky’ guises to get their 15 seconds of fame (which is mostly very tiring) – they must know that being mocked is a part of the process. Then there are those who genuinely believe that they can sing and yet have no talent whatever – they often claim that they have been assured by parents or singing coaches that they have talent; in the case of the latter there are clearly many charlatans out there! But how should you react to such people? (incidentally the same phenomenon appears on the British version). They are often disinclined to accept the judges word. In some cases they appear to be building their lives around a complete delusion. It is a sad expression of the belief that you can do anything if you want – one of those central myths which capitalist societies peddle -when for the vast majority of people this is utter rubbish. I don’t know really. There have been cases where I have felt very uncomfortable beause I felt the entrant’s stupidity was such as to indicate that they in fact had a learning difficulty – this is more true of the British shows actually. But in other cases the entrant’s ego seemed such that only mockery would suffice to pierce their armour.
In any case these preliminary rounds are not the ones I enjoy. By the time it gets to the main show (when you get down to the ‘last 24’) I do not think there is any mockery. There is harsh criticism sometimes but not mockery. And the process which is of interest is that because Cowell is a harsh critic, when he delivers praise it carries conviction, whereas Paula Adbul’s (another judge who never criticises harshly) praise is meaningless. I guess this is true across many fields of criticism.
The bottom line for me though is that you get some magnificent voices on the show – and I am not sure if without it some of them would get the kind of exposure they do. In fact I am pretty sure they would not.
3. shannon left…
I love Dreamgirl and i love Beyonce too! I think shes great in her role. everything is just great. I love it!