Saturday, 3 February 2007

Dreamgirls (2006)

It's showtime!

Dreamgirls may be about a fictitious all-girl band called the Dreamettes and their manager and soon-to-be record mogul Curtis Taylor Jr, but it’s really a roman a clef about the Supremes and Motown Records. It’s a rags to riches story, but Diana Ross and the Supremes only climbed to the charts by trampling on the career of their more talented lead singer Florence Ballard (who in real life, died penniless, depressed, and alcoholic), and Motown's success depended on not just talent, but also paying off radio stations to play their songs and micromanaging the creativity and musicality out of their own singers and songwriters. You could even say Dreamgirls is about the American Dream, its achievement and simultaneous perversion, and you won't too wrong. Such elements definitely make for a tale with an epic scope, historical sweep, drama and tragedy, inspiration and moral caution, but the question remains: will this tale translate well into a musical?

Well, since Dreamgirls has been done before as a Broadway musical, yes. But a movie musical plays by far different rules than stage musicals: what audiences are willing to see on a stage in a theatre may not be the same as what they're willing to see in a cinema, as a series of moving pictures. While most of the songs from the Broadway musical are intact here, a striking difference is the treatment of the dialogue. Originally sung as recitatives, the dialogue is now spoken - serving to regulate the pacing between the musical setpieces. The songs often follow through on one another like waves, telling the story in broad sweeps and providing the emotional narrative of the characters, in addition to serving in the traditional role of a musical number.

But even gorgeous music does not guarantee an excellent cinematic experience. Tobias A Schliessler complements the grand sweep and emotional depth of the songs with an equally involved camera. The sets are so well-designed that you'll never think of them as merely a decorative stage on which the singers perform: there are real nightclubs and showbiz venues in the beginning, but as the movie progresses, there sets expand to stages with revolving mirrors, interiors with pop art renditions of the stars and even recording studios. Despite its origins, you'll never think of Dreamgirls as merely a filmed version of a stage musical, simply because Scheliessler knows better than to leave his camera in front of the set to just capture the action (this is what made The Producers a let-down in the cinemas). Editing from Virginia Klatz ensures that the energy in every scene is multiplied unto itself from constantly changing angles, that transitions occur between scenes seamlessly, creatively, and without losing narrative energy so that you'll never consciously notice we just went from Act I to Act II, for example. Visually speaking, both cinematography and editing conspire to make the movie a dazzling, kinetic experience that you feel like standing up and dancing to the music at times.

Aside from the great visuals and music (which ranges from soul, R&B, rock, to power ballads), Dreamgirls has one more bonus to sweeten your cinematic experience: Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson deliver sterling performances, and outshine the presence of Jamie Foxx and Beyonce Knowles. With his portrayal of the tragic James Early Thunder, Murphy displays a musical talent that hasn't been seen since he parodied the godfather of soul in the James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub Party sketches on Saturday Night Live in the 1980s, and also a magnetic and serious performance that hasn't been seen from him before, ever. This puts him in the lead for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Jennifer Hudson, as the diva lead singer who turns over a new leaf, captivates the eye and ear with her soulful belting and sheer screen presence, totally driving the better-known Beyonce in the dust. And this puts her in the lead for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. In what has to be a casting in-joke, Beyonce Knowles plays a bland, characterless PR-created figure with an inoffensive voice. It doesn't put her in the lead for anything other than a few knowing winks and smiles, though.

Perhaps the producers and writers of Dreamgirls believe in giving only the best, and as a result, Dreamgirls delivers top quality in every category you could think of: acting, singing, camerawork, set design, the works. At the end of this 2 hour movie, you'd be forgiven for thinking you sat through the best and longest THX sound test ever made, but I think it's a fitting tribute to the showbiz philosophy philosophy of James Brown: Give people more than what they came for — make them tired, 'cause that's what they came for.

First published at incinemas on 22 February 2007

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