December 28, 2006

MOVIES: Dreamgirls (Bill Condon, 2006)

There are two Big Diva Moments in Dreamgirls. One is among the most exhilirating movie moments of the year; the other is surely the cruelest.

The exhiliration, of course, comes from Jennifer Hudson, who attacks the song "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going" like a starving man attacks a steak. It's impeccably sung, which isn't a huge surprise to those of us who loved her as an American Idol contestant; it's also impeccably acted, which is something of a shock, since this is Hudson's film debut.

The cruel moment is given to Beyonce Knowles as Deena, the singer with less talent but a more mainstream style and look who has bumped Hudson's Effie from the role of lead singer; she has an argument with her husband/Svengali, Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), in which he tells her that the reason he chose her to sing lead is that her voice has "no depth, no personality." We cut immediately to Beyonce/Deena's only solo number, "Listen" -- a song newly written for the movie specifically so that the character would have a big solo -- and she proves Curtis/Foxx absolutely right. It's the movie's dullest musical number, and for all the flailing of arms and anachronistic melismas that Knowles throws into it, it never comes to life, never becomes anything more than a series of accurately pitched notes.

That leads us to the biggest problem with the movie, its terribly uneven casting. Hudson is magnificent, and Eddie Murphy is very good as Jimmy Early, an R&B singer who's equal parts James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and Otis Redding. But Knowles is even duller as an actress than she is as a singer, and Foxx's performance is unusually lifeless and bland.

There's an even bigger structural problem with the musical itself, one that I think has kept it (and wil keep it) from ever being considered a truly great musical: It doesn't know who its own leading character is. The Oscar pundits have been arguing for the last several weeks over whether Knowles and Hudson should be considered in the Best Actress or the Best Supporting Actress category, trying to decide whether the movie is Deena's story or Effie's. It's neither (and both actresses belong in supporting). It's Curtis Taylor's story, the rise and fall of a music mogul.

Yet Curtis isn't given much music at all (and the one major number he does get isn't among the show's best), which makes sense on a strictly realistic level; he is a producer, after all, not a singer himself. But a musical in which the protagonist is on the musical sidelines can't help but feel off balance.

Still, the movie's absolutely worth seeing. The production numbers are staged with great flair and energy; the costumes are magnificent recreations of the movie's era (I particularly loved the orange leather miniskirts the Dreams wear on one TV appearance). And because the movie's about musicians, there's much less of the "but why are they singing?" problem that often annoys those who aren't fans of musicals.

And then there's Jennifer Hudson. We don't often get to witness the birth of a full-fledged movie star, but we're seeing one here. When Hudson is on screen, she is what I'm watching, regardless of who might be singing or talking. And when she's the one singing, I am riveted to her, even in a fluffy throwaway like "Love You I Do" (another of the movie's new songs, and the best of that bunch). When she gets hold of a real song -- "I Am Changing" or "And I Am Telling You" -- I find myself breathless. It's a brilliant piece of work; I think it's the best performance any actor has given this year.

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