Perhaps it's just generational or a tribute to my cynicism or some combination of the two, but I always feel as though I need to apologize for liking a musical. Especially contemporary musicals; it doesn't happen often, and my absolute favorite film of the genre -- South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (again, I'm sorry) -- aspires in many ways to be the musical for people who hate musicals. In other words, when you really think about it, an animated Saddam Hussein's song-and-dance number actually wields a pretty substantial believability advantage over just about any four-minute interlude featuring Matthew Broderick or Rosario Dawson or Renee Zellweger. I accept responsibility for this prejudice as a viewer, but that alone doesn't necessarily impel me to change.
Which brings me to Dreamgirls, Bill Condon's movie adaptation of Michael Bennett's 1981 Broadway triumph. You pretty much know the story: Girl singing trio the Dreams (a thinly veiled reimagining of the Supremes played by Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson and Anika Noni Rose) finds years of fame, romance, triumph and tribulation with their manager (Jamie Foxx) and the R&B star (Eddie Murphy) behind whom they make their names. The rise is meteoric, the songs are swift and the requisite crash simmers through a third act's worth of music and melodrama. There's that. But there's also the authenticity of a cast entrusted to undercut -- if not implode -- its hardest-hearted viewers, not to mention the sincerity of a director who bites of more than he can chew stylistically only to be saved by the overwhelming conviction of his source material. Choppy as it is, Dreamgirls reflects its makers' faith, and sometimes faith is enough.
"I think we don’t live in a culture anymore where we can just experience the pure pleasure of Astaire and Rogers dancing for five minutes -- as much as we all love that," Condon told an audience late last week at the 92nd Street Y, where he previewed Dreamgirls as part of the venue's perennial A-list screening series Reel Pieces. "We really had to make sure that by the end of the songs, you were in a different place in the story than you were in the beginning. ... It's one of those paradoxes that its original staging was described as cinematic. I'm hoping this will be described by people as theatrical, because I think staying true to its theatrical roots makes it work better on film."
Well, yes and no; for starters, the only thing that belts louder than Dreamgirls' singers is its camerawork and editing, stringing narrative through tiresome, era-appropriate historical montage. Yet while Condon may lack the technical flair that stage director Rob Marshall brought to his screenplay for 2002's Chicago -- that Oscar-devouring paragon of revisionist movie musicals -- he compensates with masterful cast dynamics and typically extraordinary empathy for his characters that viewers witnessed in his quasi-biopics Gods & Monsters and Kinsey. As Deena, the film's symbolic Diana Ross figure, Knowles navigates Behind the Music-esque vicissitudes of striving and betrayal with an evolving grace; she brings purpose even to Condon's hoariest expository tricks. Moreover, in dimensionalizing Deena, Knowles seems to not only embrace but invoke her experience as the star of her own defunct trio, Destiny's Child. It's a credit to her fearlessness (and Condon's resourcefulness) that the overlap fuels the drama without cheapening it.
Of course, she is only Beyonce -- an international star, to be sure, but one who arrives sans mythology. Not so for Murphy, a genuinely genius performer and notorious pill who brings both qualities to his womanizing soul icon James "Thunder" Early. Condon said that no sooner had he finished the script and received producer David Geffen's blessing than he set out to recruit the star.
"He actually had seen Dreamgirls three or four times, and we had a great meeting where he just said he wanted to do what he wound up doing: He wanted to become this character," Condon said. He didn't want to make it about Eddie Murphy; he didn't want to do any of the stuff he is famous for. He knew the score. He is a musician. He said it was in his range -- I took him at his word, and thank God he was telling the truth."
Condon himself was achingly honest about the personal anguish Murphy tapped in his role; his ugly divorce at the time of production carved a hollowness behind his eyes that literally pulls their sparkle from his face. His exasperated, heartbroken slip-slide into drug-addled alienation is almost too convincing. "James Early had to be played by a big star, because you can't fake that -- that's sort of what it's about," the director told the crowd. "And frankly, someone like Eddie has been coasting for a few years. That's sort of where James 'Thunder' Early is at when the story starts, and the resonance of that couldn't have come at a more perfect time for him."
Then there's Jennifer Hudson. The American Idol alumna was one of 780 women Condon saw for the pivotal role of Effie, the voluptuous Dream who endures one (literal) setback after another before Foxx's Curtis -- also her lover -- sends her packing. Effie's reaction song, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," became a Broadway standard not long after the stage musical found its stride (Jennifer Holliday's historic version at the 1982 Tonys is now even a YouTube standard); onscreen, it retains its dramatic imperative while surging with tear-jerking catharsis. Hudson is exceptional throughout the film, and her handle on these five minutes is virtually beyond description. It's willful, vulnerable, dynamic, more than star-making, really -- it's the stuff of instant legend. I hate sweeping extremes like what I'm about to say almost as much as I hate musicals, but I have thought about it and I mean it when I say Hudson's performance signals the greatest debut by an American actress in my lifetime. The accolades? Deserved. The applause in movie theaters? Legit. It's truly, truly phenomenal. The woman may not have been able to win a TV talent show, but she's pretty much a lock to win an Academy Award.
"We shot it in the last week," Condon said of the sequence. "I knew that she had to be so immersed in this part and know it so well. ... Jennifer came untrained as a singer and untrained as an actress. She was full-out on every take and we had almost 100 of them, you know. And her voice was shot after three or four hours, and because she's such a natural, once the voice was gone, everything was gone. Actually, in the first couple of takes she did, she started to cry. I went over and sort of laid out that basic rule: 'It's the audience that's supposed to cry, not you.' She had to hold it back. And you'll notice -- we shot it over the course of four days -- her eyes are always full of emotion and moist but it never goes any further. All I had to do was tell her that, and she was able to control it. It was really something."
Something indeed -- even I am recommending a musical. But don't expect an apology this time. Condon and his cast have crafted the richest yet least guilty pleasure of the season, a film so daringly flawed and benign and ambitious and genuine that even a skeptic can fall in love with it. Yes sir, something indeed.
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