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Dreamgirls - Chris Utley

 

Chris Utley's Commentary on Dreamgirls (2006)

An Ode to Dreamgirls”

(Spoilers included)

I'm supposed to be a film critic. The word “Critic” has 3 definitions:

• a person who judges, evaluates, or criticizes: a poor critic of men.

• a person who judges, evaluates, or analyzes literary or artistic works, dramatic or musical performances, or the like, esp. for a newspaper or magazine

• a person who tends too readily to make captious, trivial, or harsh judgments; faultfinder.

If you're reading this, then you've probably got your knives sharpened and guns locked and loaded expecting me to fulfill definitions 1 & 3. I find myself in a quandary, however. My task here is to judge, evaluate, criticize and make a trivial, harsh judgment regarding Bill Condon's film adaptation of the Broadway musical Dreamgirls. But how can I truly be a critic when I find (almost) nothing to criticize about the film? Easy: I won't criticize it. I'll instead document my experience with this film. Consider this my love letter to this motion picture, for I am indeed in love. Yes, I admit it. This film has completely captured my heart and soul.

Let's start a few weeks before Thanksgiving 2006. I received my weekly Arclight Hollywood- (the BEST movie complex in the USA bar none!) newsletter via email when they announced that they would be holding exclusive engagement showings of Dreamgirls from December 15th through the 24th at the centerpiece of their complex: the Cinerama Dome. For $25 bucks, we'd get reserved seats to see the movie and two souvenirs: a full color Dreamgirls book and an authentic lithograph poster. In a matter of 30 minutes, I had my tickets purchased and printed out for the 7:30 PM show on Saturday the 16th.

A few weeks later, while running through my list of weekly TiVo'ed shows, I ran across an episode of “Oprah” that featured the stars of the film. The audience went nuts as Oprah began to lavish praise on the film as well as the stars of the film. They really went nuts when Jennifer Hudson - who portrays Effie White in the movie - hit the stage. The more the actors spoke, the crazier the audience got. Then Beyonce' performed “Listen”, one of the original songs written just for the movie. She blew the roof off Oprah's studio with that performance.

Then came the critics' screenings. The early word was that audiences should brace themselves to be dazzled and bewildered. Of course, some critics were not as dazzled as the folks in Oprah's audience. But the one reaction I was waiting for the most was from none other than my friend and sister The Diva - the sassiest and most passionate of the 3 Black Chicks. She lives and breathes the Broadway musical. If she said it's a winner, then it would truly be a winner. If she said it stinks, I'd trust her word. When I finally checked in with her, she came back with a response of praise - very nervous praise (I'll come back to that in a while). Hearing Diva's thoughts only made me want to see the film even more.

Fast forward to a rainy day in Southern California. My wife and I gingerly hustled across the rain-slicked 405 freeway to drop off our 10 month old at his grandma's house. We had dinner at our favorite Chinese restaurant, and we made our way to Sunset & Vine to the Arclight Cinerama Dome. As I walked in the spacious theatre lobby, I was reminded of another film critic who made a snide remark that the $25 ticket price was Paramount/DreamWorks' effort to target gay and Black audiences (whom he called the “bling” crowd). The mixed crowd - black, white and every shade in between -definitely silenced that critic's ASSessment. We flashed our tickets, got our books and lithographs and ventured into the Cinerama Dome auditorium where the film was to be digitally projected across a 32 foot high by 82 foot wide screen. The normally stoic screening room was adorned with disco balls hanging from both sides of the entrance which, thanks to a magnifying light, caused that disco strobe effect to fill the entire auditorium with the Dreamgirls title logo spread across the width of the closed curtains. The crowd was giddy with anticipation as we moved closer and closer to the 7:30 PM showtime. Finally, one of the Arclight ushers, per their standard practice, introduced the film. We applauded the usher's intro, the curtain opened and the film began.

2 hours and 11 minutes later, to quote the title of a song by one of the film's stars, I was crazy in love.

First things first, I'd stated from the moment I saw the first trailer that the film will sink or swim, live or die, make it or break it on Jennifer Hudson's ability to sing The Song. In the African American community, The Song is darn near sacred. Often imitated in many a talent show and Apollo Theatre Amateur Nights, deftly celebrated in episodes of “In Living Color” and “Martin”, it seemed as if Jennifer Holiday's classic performance of The Song - “And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going” - would never, ever be duplicated. That much is true. Jennifer Hudson did not imitate that original heart-stopping performance in this film. Rather, she Y2K'ed it.

When she sung the opening bars of The Song, a few folks in the audience clapped and yelled out a collective “YESSS!!!” For the next few minutes or so, you could hear a pin drop as Effie White begged and pleaded Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) to keep her in his heart…not to mention her singing group The Dreams from which she was fired a few moments earlier. Curtis spurns her sung advances and Effie is left alone on stage making her plea.

“Tear down the mountain

Yell, scream and shout

You can say what you want

I'm not walkin' out

Stop all the rivers

Push, strike and kill

I'm not gonna leave you

There's no way I will

And…”

By the time Effie/Jennifer got to that elongated “And”, I pumped my fist and scrunched my face in bewilderment, and the rest of the audience broke into thunderous, earth-shaking applause. And she hadn't finished The Song yet. But when she did finish, we the audience was captured under her spell. We applauded and cheered as if we were at a live concert. When you experience Miss Hudson's rendition of The Song, all of those Best Supporting Actress wins - including the one she's destined to get on Oscar night - will make perfectly good sense.

But Miss Hudson didn't just use her singing to win us over. She prances across the screen with a confidence and swagger that makes the audience forget that this is her first movie. Brassy, sassy, and barely masking her insecurity, Jennifer Hudson truly delivers a breakthrough, star-making performance.

And the rest of the cast ain't too bad, either. Even more critics (and some fans too) find fault with Beyonce' Knowles's performance as Deena Jones, who catapults from backup singer of The Dreamettes to lead singer of The Dreams. It's as if folks were expecting the Beyonce' of Destiny's Child and solo fame to show up onscreen and carry the film on her shoulders. Careful attention to the plot of the film reveals that this is not the case. It's evident from opening frame that Effie was the epicenter of the group while Deena was content in her background role in the group. She is not called to display much strength in her early scenes. Her uncertainty and insecurity - as shown by her sneaking away from her mother both to perform at the Amateur Night contest and to travel on the road with the group as well as her reaction to the results of the contest - gives evidence to her portrayal. As the film progresses and Deena becomes lead singer and, ultimately, a diva in her own right, we see shades of the Beyonce' we know and love - particularly in her performance of “One Night Only” and culminating in her unforgettable rendition of “Listen”…

…Which leads me to my lone gripe with the film. (Spoiler Alert) As powerful of a statement as “Listen” is - especially when you consider that the song is Deena's declaration of independence dedicated to the man at the recording control booth - it's power is somewhat diminished because of the director's choice of inserting a montage over Deena/Beyonce's performance. By going back and forth between Deena's recording and this particular montage, we the audience do not get the full emotional impact of Deena's words. Simple back and forth shots of the recording studio - most notably the subject of the song - and close-ups of Deena singing would have sufficed. But that's a minor gripe in a major cinematic achievement. Let me get back to my fanboy praise before I further descend into Critic Definition #3 territory.

Jamie Foxx gives an understated yet effective performance as the “dream charmer” car salesman turned record producer/mogul who gives The Dreamettes their big break and eventually renames the group The Dreams. Cool yet calculating, calm yet ferocious, he is the living manifestation personification of a classic Soul record called “The Sly, The Slick, The Wicked”. Anika Noni Rose shines as Lorrell, the third member of the Dreams who eventually becomes the mistress of dynamic soul singer James Thunder Early, played by Eddie Murphy.

Many critics claim that Murphy delivers his best work ever in this film with his rock `em, sock `em, and ultimately tragic performance. I was not surprised. Eddie Murphy was always good - not just at comedy, but at drama and music as well. Folks must have forgotten that the film that put Eddie Murphy into the Hollywood stratosphere was a hard edged action film called “48 Hours”. Everyone remembers the jokes and wisecracks. I remember most the intensity of the action scenes and how convincing he really was. And as far as his singing goes, everyone remembers his #1 hit “Party All The Time”…not to mention his sidesplitting antics as the voice of Donkey in the “Shrek” movies. Murphy always had the mojo to deliver good performances. He just needed the right vehicle to showcase them. He definitely found the right one, here.

Props also go out to Danny Glover as Marty Madison, James Thunder Early's time and road weary manager; as well as to Keith Robinson who plays CC White, Effie's brother and principal songwriter for The Dreams. Sharon Leal, who plays Effie's replacement in the group, was a bit underused, but she held her own in both the acting and musical scenes.

All these actors together formed a memorable ensemble. Despite all the (valid) praise being heaped on Jennifer Hudson - and gripes about whether she should be nominated in the Lead or Supporting Actress categories - I feel that each member of the principal cast was part of a jigsaw puzzle. Each character/performer fit in his/her own individual place and fulfilled their own individual purpose. They were truly, to quote one of the songs in the film, “a family…a giant tree stretching out to the sky.” Add to that the vibrant costumes, the striking lighting and set decoration, the vibrant and colorful cinematography, the sharp and crisp editing, groovy music that'll have audiences humming the tunes all the way home and Bill Condon as the captain of this ship delivering masterful direction, and you've got yourself a true definition of soul cinema.

I scratch my head at the notion that some critics find Dreamgirls to be missing its soul. Having sat through the film twice now (and counting), I'm bewildered at their observation. They obviously saw a different movie than I did. I see a vibrant and alive piece of filmmaking. They see soullessness. It took my second viewing of this film to understand where these detractors are coming from. (Spoiler Alert) In an awesome scene, James Thunder Early and the Dreamettes are the first Black performers to ever play a particular club in Miami. As Jimmy breaks into the more soulful and passionate sections of the song complete with wailing, bending, pelvis thrusts and hip gyrations, the all White crowd look at him in disgust. One couple furiously walks out of the club before his performance is completed. And it hit me. That scene is the perfect metaphor to describe the negative reaction to the film. This film isn't soulless after all. Maybe, just maybe, it's got too much soul for your average stuffy and stodgy film critic (see Definition #3) to handle. When you get right down to it, Dreamgirls is a very intimidating film in comparison to 2006's other Oscar contenders. It's bullish, it's spunky, and it wears its heart and its emotions on its sleeve. And it makes no apologies. It is exactly how I ended my last paragraph: Dreamgirls is a true definition of soul cinema.

And, in addition, the community of African American writers/actors/directors who claim to make soul cinema in their own right have officially been served notice. There is a new standard that has been set. The bar has been raised high. Dreamgirls is the ultimate example of what happens when our best and our brightest artists come together to create art. Perhaps the phenomenal success of this film will spark a new trend: the African American Event Film. I've often imagined what it would be like to see Spike Lee direct a film with Denzel, Angela Bassett, Sidney Poitier, James Earl Jones, Nia Long, and Samuel L. Jackson in the same cast. Then, a few seconds later, I'd dismiss that notion as a pipe dream. But with Jamie Foxx, Beyonce' Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover and Jennifer Hudson sharing the screen with this film, maybe my pipe dream has an actual chance of coming true. Whether that day comes or not, this is truly a pivotal moment in African American Cinema. I celebrate and cherish this time and have renewed hope for the future of Black Film.

So, in the end, if Dreamgirlsrides off into the sunset of Best Picture, I will be among those who clap and cheer the loudest. I will also be among those who are the most shocked, stunned and amazed. The last couple of times we had a complete work of African American cinema stand so close to the brass ring, we were flat out robbed (The Color Purple (1985): 11 Nominations, 0 Wins; Do The Right Thing (1989): Heralded by many as the best film of 1989; 2 Nominations, 0 wins. These stats are fresh in both mine and The Diva's mind). This film represents our latest great hope of achieving that elusive symbol of motion picture achievement. However, after reading the year end top 10 lists and checking out the various awards leading up to Oscar night, I am fearful for another letdown - which would explain The Diva's “nervous praise” that I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. If those fears are indeed made manifest, it will be a shame.

Then again, with the stunning (and controversial) recent Oscar success of Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman, maybe this film - in which my kinsmen can lay claim to as part of the collection of Our Stories - will get to have a seat at the Oscar table. Nevertheless, despite the outcome, Bill Condon and his acting/creative team have given this film their 110% and have created an absolutely stunning motion picture achievement; the most soulful film experience I've had in nearly 20 years. For their efforts, this film has leapfrogged into my personal list of the top 10 best films I've ever seen. Period.

I give you a standing ovation, Dreamgirls. No matter what the critics may say, you will always own a piece of my heart.

Developed by Francis Doody

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