Sunday, May 25, 2008

How to package soul: Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls

Like the western, the musical as a genre has largely disappeared from cinemas since the 1950s, with the occasional exception like Chicago and last year’s mediocre The Producers. For the generation raised on Mtv, watching characters break into song in the middle of a conversation can seem bizarre, but a well-choreographed musical number can be as uplifting as ever, even if it seems old-fashioned.

The makers of Dreamgirls, a film adapted from a successful 1981 Broadway musical, are well-aware of the risks, so they’ve promoted the film heavily. The movie itself seems unusually self-conscious of its fickle modern audience, so it moves quickly from show-stopping number to number. The plot loosely retells the story of the 1960s rise of Motown’s The Supremes in Detroit, only with Jamie Foxx playing the Berry Gordy Jr. figure known as Curtis Taylor Jr., Beyonce Knowles getting the Diana Ross role (Deena Jones), and Eddie Murphy blending together James Brown, Marvin Gaye, and Jackie Wilson in his role as James “Thunder” Early. If you don’t mind the cheesiness of the melodramatic plot shifts, Dreamgirls neatly showcases Detroit rhythm and blues within the historical context of race tensions in the music industry. For the most part I liked the music and the performances, but the film eventually overwhelmed me with its willingness to please.

The film begins with Curtis Taylor Jr. owning a car dealership, but he needs three backup singers for James Early, so he discovers the three Dreamettes singing at a local talent show. Wearing handmade dresses, and sporting wigs that they choose to wear backwards to make them more hip, Deena Jones, Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose), and lead singer Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) find themselves losing in a rigged contest, and they aren’t exactly thrilled at first at the prospect of singing backup. I was expecting Beyonce Knowles to dominate the storyline, but the film focuses much of the time on the relatively unknown, once American Idol near-winner Jennifer Hudson. Her Effie White character has the vocal ability to star in the group, but her greater heft makes her image less salable than the more conventionally beautiful Deena Jones. Perhaps relieved to be in a good movie for a change, Eddie Murphy has no problem acting and singing (I can still remember his satire on James Brown back in his Saturday Night Live days). In a film that can be a bit too PG-13 at times in its effort to be something the whole family can enjoy, Murphy brings some edge to the proceedings. At one point his bump and grind causes a square white couple to walk out of a show in Atlantic City. When the star struck Lorrell Robinson asks him what R & B means, James Early replies: “Rough and black.”

After Curtis Taylor Jr. launches the Dreamgirls as their own act, they have to face a music industry that steals African American songs and repackages them for white consumption. After Taylor replaces Effie with Deena as the lead, Effie starts to miss rehearsals and act irresponsibly, leading to her eventual dismissal from the group which prompts perhaps her best song “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” The R & B works best when the accompanying emotion is most hopeless, the stakes highest, and Jennifer Hudson brings a surprising amount of pathos to her role as the plain singer amongst all of the other highly packaged beauties. Later, as success leads Curtis to become more manipulative, eventually selling out the emotional core of the songs to disco, Deena Jones finally revolts against him. One can imagine Beyonce Knowles enjoyed singing about breaking out of her gilded cage of popular packaged success.

While Dreamgirls definitely has its schmaltzy side, it retains its edge by acknowledging how hard it was to find crossover success in the midst of the sexism, the racism, the Vietnam war, the payola, and even the Detroit riots of the 1960s. The Supremes were trailblazers both in the way they showcased African American talent and well-tailored female glamour for the first time. While the actual history of the Supremes is a much sadder story of Florence Ballard’s decline after being supplanted by Diana Ross, “Dreamgirls” imagines an alternate universe in which Effie White has a chance to reclaim her former status. In the process, Jennifer Hudson announces herself as a definite star.

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