Where have you gone, Busby Berkeley? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you
And now we come to 2006's requisite "film that everybody already has an opinion about because it's been so very thoroughly written about, thank you Oscar-pimping media": Dreamgirls.
First things first: you've heard right. Jennifer Hudson's performance of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" at the midpoint is beyond phenomenal. Once upon a time, I showed a girlfriend the "Dancing in the Dark" number from Vincente Minelli's The Band Wagon, proclaiming that "movies exist so that scenes like that one can be put into them." I feel much the same way about "And I Am Telling You..." Hudson - I repeat this even though we all know it, goddamn the entertainment media - was rejected from American Idol back in the day, despite (because of) her extraordinarily powerful voice, and if losing on a TV show means getting to sing this song in this movie, then hurrah for reality TV. Hudson takes the song, an anthem of a scorned woman defying her absent lover as well as the best number in the show just on the merits, and tears into it with so much power and energy that names like Billie, Janis and Big Mama Thornton floated across my brain unbidden. Half of the theater I was sitting in burst into applause at the end, spontaneously and honestly, because dammit you had to do something at the end of something like that.
It's all by itself a reason to plunk out your money and your two hours, and it's also a huge liability, because the moment it's over, you find yourself thinking, "the movie just peaked. No two ways about it."
Dreamgirls suffers from a whole lot of little problems and one great big one, and that great big one is so endemic to the very concept that I can't believe nobody cared about it in 1981, when the show premiered. Namely, we have the following situation: Effie (Hudson) has a fantastic voice, but it's not a "pop" voice and she is fat, so she is replaced by Deena (Beyoncé Knowles), who has a thin and lifeless voice. It is established over and over again that Effie has just about the finest voice ever heard to man. Would you like me to tell you, or will you try to guess?
Ding! That's right! For the musical to work as a story, one of the leads has to possess a noticeably crappy voice. I'll say this for Dreamgirls as a story: I believed it. There was never a doubt in my mind that Effie White was getting screwed over and that I should be horribly upset about it, because Jennifer Hudson really does have the best voice in the movie, and whenever anybody else was talking or singing or doing anything whatsoever, my thought was consistently:
"Why am I not watching Jennifer Hudson right now?"
I consider myself a connoisseur of movie musicals, and I can't think of another example it that genre's long and beautiful history that hinges on making sure we get that Character A can't sing. You might as well retitle the thing Dreamgirls: Fucking Pointless, because nobody in the history of time has ever watched a musical in the hope of hearing bad singers.*
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the show? Pretty thin. Bill Condon is a decent director and a better writer, and it's really obvious that he's never worked with a musical before. More than any other genre in cinema, musicals represent a heightened reality - that's not an opinion, it's a fact, like "film noir tends to have a lot of black in it" - and you can either run with that, or run from it. Given that Condon scripted Chicago, a film whose fantasy structure made it seem positively mortified that it had song-and-dance routines, it's not terribly surprising that he chooses to run away. His style, while not massively realistic, has always been fairly subdued and straightforward, and while that's okay for a film about a college professor, it's not okay for a musical. Show of hands, who can tell me how many good realist musicals there have been? One? That's right! And the director himself said it doesn't count!
Realistic musicals are dull. I am prepared to defend that statement with my life. And yet here is Dreamgirls, shot with a very nice and sober camera, and very proper film-school style editing. Mr. Condon, you have people rehearsing for a dance routine in a body shop. Please accept that you are not shooting a documentary. Choreograph your camera movements accordingly.
Not that the show gives him all that much to work with. It's a musical very clearly based on the rise of Diana Ross and the Supremes, and the birth of Motown. And around 50% of the music sounds a lot like low-grade soul (the exceptions: "And I Am Telling You..." and "One Night Only" are both fantastic, and both sung by, surprise, Jennifer Hudson). Which leaves around 50% that sounds like Broadway music from 1981. Maybe you, dear reader, enjoy Broadway music from 1981. I'm not sure why that's the case, but you are entitled to your opinion. Anyway, it has a bad beat and you can't dance to it.
6/10 (One whole point for "And I Am Telling You..." and another for Hudson in general)