Dreamgirls and Cold Mountain have a somewhat similar history. Both were fêted as shoo-ins for Oscar Picture glory when they were in post-production, both of them racked up a slew of nominations (7 for Minghella’s piece, 8 for Condon’s) without managing to attain that elusive best picture nod. More importantly, they both won that Supporting Actress statue – performances which have gone on to be reviled in many circles. I happen to be more than a moderate fan of Cold Mountain (which I’ve reviewed before) but I’m often indecisive about where my feelings on Dreamgirls lie.* I gave it a somewhat knee-jerk B+/A- when I was doing my 2006 in review post over a year ago. I do like Dreamgirls for all its issues – of which there are many. Watching it recently, a number of things that struck me about all the times I’d seen it before resurfaced, but some even more interesting things came to mind.
I still think of Dreamgirls in context of its supporting actress, although it’s not Jennifer Hudson I turn to but Anika Noni Rose. Perspective is such a great thing, and taking Noni’s recently strong work in For Colored Girls I put even more credence in her work as Lorrell Robinson. It’s more than her age defying ability to encapsulate the youth of Lorrell (who’s half her age) – character consistency is a beautiful thing, especially in a musical like Dreamgirls which, unlike something like Moulin Rouge, takes great pains to be a slice-of-life. When Noni Rose plays opposite Murphy on that tour bus (“You’re so crazy, Jimmy”) or breaks down, almost facetiously, in a dressing room (“Nobody’s breaking me and Jimmy up”) she manages to retain that strident character consistency that’s so necessary in the drama, and that seems more than occasionally lacking in her costars.
Still, I find that this time around I have a little more commendation for the cast itself. Although I am no champion of Hudson’s performance I find it easier to praise her collective delivery – even I applaud her enthusiasm more than her execution. No amount of jaunty editing could conceal her terrible dancing, which is no judgment on her acting ability but suggests an insufficiency in the casting area. It makes Effie’s resultant firing logical, because truthfully she is something of lead-weight if she’s not in the lead-spot, musically. She gets highest praises for “And I Am Telling You” which is odd, since her passion on “I Am Changing” is so much more piercing. There are, too, rare moments where her sincerity is palpable out-of-song. An ineffectual moment like removing an ingratiating M.C’s hand from Deena’s derriere is so well played which only underscores her promise – which has yet to be realised.
On that note of unrealised promise, I turn to Beyoncé who so easily emerges as the performer most likely to be condemned. Depending on my mood I’d say Beyoncé is either just as competent in her role as Hudson, or at times even better. Watching it recently, I feel more inclined to the latter. That glassy-eyed vacant stare which marks Knowles Deena works not only in accordance with her range, but takes on greater meaning when taking the narrative into perspective. It’s that sort of vague suggestion of being vacuous that makes her Deena such a good performer – as Curtis says, she’s nothing but what he puts into her. It works better in the film’s first half, and where Knowles triumphs decisively is in her performances. It’s a surprising thing, but she manages to eschew her natural stage charisma to retain those same characteristics of her characters which makes a number like the eponymous one work because you actually believe you are watching Deena Jones – even if her spoken lines all too often retain a clunky delivery.
It’s that sort of juxtaposition of the good and the bad which marks Dreamgirls. Condon is so adamant in trying to avoid the book-numbers of the musicals, he’s so determined to ensure that the musical numbers occur in a realistic format, the times when he decides to retain pieces like “Family” or “It’s All Over” become problematic. “Family” is especially awkward because it is a number so rich with an almost cringe-worthy amount of sentimentalism. Its placement immediately before the Dreamettes debut (that is not the least bit familial) is subverted by Condon’s occasional tunnel-vision. Which makes me consider Marshall and Nine. Despite the tongue-lashing it received, Nine consistency in its musical numbers makes it a more laudable piece – cinematically, especially.
Then, of course, there’s the male ensemble. Keith Robinson C.C seems less superfluous now, if only because he’s working doubly hard to ensure that the character’s blandness don’t show much. I’m neither fond of nor hateful towards Murphy’s Jimmy. It endures as a fine comedic turn from him, no worse than the few good comedic performances he’s delivered in pieces like Coming to America or Trading Places. It’s Jamie Foxx’s exasperating Curtis Jackson who’s the film’s true albatross. He’s consistently awkward in the role contributing an unremitting impediment to any organic establishment of plot-points.
It’s a bit unfortunate, but a succinct criticism of Dreamgirls could be made from just watching the first fifteen minutes. Condon infuses the narrative with an almost – almost– nauseating amount of colour pyrotechnics culminating in production design that’s strangely officious, even for a musical. What makes it officious is that, there are some moments where Condon’s visual additions add nothing to the story. “One Night Only” ends up coming off for good and for bad, since even when you get the point of the recreation of a real music video being done Condon gets these delusions of grandeur where it’s just a bit too much.
Today, I’d probably give Dreamgirls a solid B because it does remain as a generally enjoyable experience – and its editing is especially good, taking into account its story issues; issues which are part of the actual Broadway production as much as its cinematic counterpart. Krieger’s score never emerges as iconic as it’s endured in some circles (although the new song additions are well infused with the old ones). Dreamgirls might not be one for the ages, but I suppose it is good enough at the end of the day.
*I’m not certain why, but I feel a need to beg pardon for this lengthy discourse. This was meant to be a short look back at the film; it turned into an overly lengthy dissertation. Umm, apologies?
Now that almost half a decade has passed, where do your thoughts rest on Dreamgirls?