Isn't Music Supposed To Express What People Are Feeling?: Dreamgirls (2006)

While I had a different film scheduled for viewing for the last blog post of the musical marathon, and by extension, the last post of the year, I think it is fitting that I finished off with a rather contemporary work in 2006's Dreamgirls.  While I started the marathon with an early Astaire classic Top Hat, whose structure is decidedly in the classic setting, Dreamgirls made nearly seventy five years later and a century after the medium of film came into its fullest form, represents a return to the classic filmic structure, one with a linear narrative and poised look at a period in music that was heavily competitive and troublesome when one was oppressed by layers of intersectionality.  Dreamgirls is a new consideration of the Busby Berkeley style backstage musical, reconsidered for a modern audience, one that is further extended by it being an adaptation of a Broadway musical, helping to navigate some of the more showy elements at play in the film.  I worked my way through Dreamgirls wondering as to whether or not it was actually an exceptional film, or a reworking of the Oscar-bait Hollywood fare that manages to pique critics interest for subject matter alone.  Dreamgirls would be slightly more impressive were it to have committed to a stylistic cohesion of some sort, relying on musical numbers in a singular style, instead of using them both as a point of narrative advancement, as well as dialogue construction.  Furthermore, while it should be very much embraced for possessing  cast that is almost predominantly composed of African-American actors, it seems hesitant to navigate some of the more challenging and troublesome racial spaces that would have existed in the era to save face and make a universally palatable film.  I would much rather have revisited 2005's Hustle and Flow, a film that challenges 'safe' depictions of race in cinema, while also technically falling within the definition of the musical, although it is in a decidedly modern context.  The sum of all the parts of Dreamgirls are nice, but it suffers from a few too many missteps to make for a worthwhile and praiseworthy filmic experience.  Indeed, if this is one of the premier examples of the musical in the past decade, it truly is at a low point.

Dreamgirls focuses on the musical aspirations of a group of young African-American woman hoping to make it big as singers.  The three women Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles),  Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) are young small town girls who hope that by appearing at a local tryout for a musical competition that they could win a recording contract and subsequently make it big in the industry.  While they lose out to a blues guitarist they do catch they eye of manager and eye for musical talent Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) who hopes to use them as back up singers for the aging star James 'Thunder' Early (Eddie Murphy).  While the group is hesitant, particularly Effie, to serve as backup singers, when they are promised money and a chance to make it big they jump on the opportunity, taking with them Effie's brother and performance choreographer C.C. (Keith Robinson).  While the initial stardom proves ideal for the group things quickly come to a halt when the advances of James and at various points Curtis lead to a fracturing within the group, made all the more complicated when Curtis decides to push the three women as a group act detached from James.  It is the idea of Curtis to have Deena sing lead, although both she and Effie realize that Effie is clearly the better performer.  This choice to market the group called The Dreams leads to confrontation amongst the members of the group and eventually Effie leaves in frustration.  While on sabbatical from singing, Deena makes a name for herself, although her and Curtis' relationship suffers considerably.  When James Early's old manager Marty Madison (Danny Glover) approaches Effie about returning to singing, she is initially quite hesitant, only working in small lounge fair, until the return of C.C. affords her a chance to make it big.  When this realization is discovered, Curtis takes to unethical tactics to stifle her career advancement, but after a legal battle aided by the help of Deena, the returning star finds success and eventually The Dreams make one final goodbye performance, going out on the top, much less the case for James who has by this time passed away and certainly for Curtis whose respect in the industry is all but squandered.

I want to make it rather clear that Dreamgirls is not an unwatchable film.  Indeed, many of the musical numbers are quite evocative and the performances are, for the most part, tempered by the various actors.  Eddie Murphy, much to my surprise, was probably the most well-executed acting in the film.  My concerns, come, instead from how music is used to add emotive elements to scenes that could have just as easily gained equal intensity from normal acting.  This is most glaringly troublesome during the middle section of the film when Effie decides to leave The Dreams.  While it does have a musical number proper, it is bookended by unnecessary sing-talking between the various characters that causes their dialogue to take on a nauseatingly unlistenable quality.  As a pseudo-backstage musical, the film could simply have relied on the musical performances proper as an expression of the problems at play by the characters.  Certainly, this occurs in two of the most famous backstage musicals 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 wherein the characters' emotions are affirmed by their diagetic musical numbers.  Considering that the narrative is afforded a rather large temporal space and uses the spatial breadth of radio and television to extend its narrative, the choice to use these central singing moments is somewhat baffling.  Indeed, it is in this insistence that the film require some sort of singing dialogue that Dreamgirls traipses as a rather contentious line between well-intended narrative on the black experience in music and something that is exploitative in its veiled use of grandstanding through musical dialogue.  I am not saying that this is an impossibility in the musical genre, in fact, many of the films I have encountered this month involve sung dialogue, but this is also the main means with which narrative is delivered in the film, probably the most realized in Oklahoma, wherein it is rather clear that more of the film is sung than actually spoken and from the onset it is clearly established as a film with a reality where people sing their feelings.  For Dreamgirls it has no context and its execution becomes glaringly in its poor delivery.

Key Scene:  The initial on the road sequence, when the girls join James' show is a perfect joining of cinematic tricks and performance, it is a shame the film does not attain this level of intensity throughout.

Dreamgirls is a film worth watching, but only if renting is an option.  With that being said Hustle and Flow from a year earlier is far more worthwhile.

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