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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Dreamgirls

Dreamgirls is an enjoyable if cheesy spectacle. The problems that weighed it down on Broadway – a mostly mediocre-or-worse score and a clumsily constructed and written roman-a-clef story based on a worthy subject (the history of black pop music in the 1960s and 1970s) – remain in the film version.

Writer-director Bill Condon, to his credit, doesn’t condescend to the material and instead meets it head-on. But while there is much visual energy and storytelling verve, especially in the first half, there is little if any discernible irony. One might hope that the brainy filmmaker who gave us Gods and Monsters and Kinsey, and who wrote the movie adaptation for the more sardonic Chicago, would approach this material the way Douglas Sirk handled soap operas in the 1950s (Imitation of Life, Written on the Wind). With a stylized use of actors as well as brilliant, double-edged visuals, Sirk allowed audiences who came for soap to wallow in it, but those who were attuned to what the director was doing could relish the irony, subtle social criticism and even parody. Instead, Condon seems really to be a fan of the original show, and he successfully translates his own enthusiasm into explosive montages of sound and image that get the audience as buzzed as any I’ve seen in a movie theater in some time.

This is not a negligible accomplishment. But it’s a hollow one. At least the first hour is fun, telling of the rise of the singing group The Dreams and the eventual dismissal of their lead singer, Effie (Jennifer Hudson), who sings “too black” and looks too unlike a fashion model for the mass success with white audiences their manager envisions. This part ends with the most famous number, “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” as verbally clumsy as ever, but brilliantly performed by Hudson and smashingly filmed by Condon. But after this dramatic high point, the story has no clear place to go. The last hour of the movie gives us one dud song after another, including a couple of new ones, “Patience” and “Listen,” that are treated like masterpieces but most definitely are not. The showbiz-movie clichés pile higher. Condon tries to breeze past them but they inevitably gum up the works.

As noted elsewhere, Eddie Murphy is brilliant as singer Jimmy “Thunder” Early, and livens up both his dialogue and his musical numbers considerably. He and Jennifer Hudson, along with Anika Noni Rose as the third original Dream, add considerably to the movie’s charm. Jamie Foxx and Beyoncé Knowles, the nominal stars, are completely unsuited to the melodrama of the film’s second half. That melodrama is only half-heartedly concocted and staged, anyway – the movie might even benefit from some all-out hysteria to liven up the proceedings.

The often dazzling visuals come from a team of relative newcomers: cinematographer Tobias Schliessler and editor Virginia Katz (who have both worked with Condon before), along with Oscar-winning production designer John Myhre (Memoirs of a Geisha, Chicago). They’ve done fine, audience-pleasing work here. Now we can hope that they and Bill Condon will take on better material next time, and accomplish something more lasting and more worthy of their talents.

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