When it premiered on Broadway in 1981, Dreamgirls held a mirror up to Diana Ross’s desperate careerism, from the time she replaced Florence Ballard as the lead singer of The Supremes during the height of the Civil Rights Movement to the dissolving of the group in the late ’70s. The Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen musical understandably roused Ross’s righteous indignation, but the singer was angry for the wrong reason: Though Dreamgirls accurately reflected the way Ross turned her back on her race, it was the show’s pop banalities that truly shamed the legacy of The Supremes. The show’s unfortunate irony is that it reflects but doesn’t critique the pathology of The Dreamettes, pandering as The Supremes once did to a predominantly white audience that seems oblivious to the musical’s cliché depiction of music-business politics and lazy expression of black life.
It’s not inconceivable that people have been cheering this hollow melodrama and its unspectacular songs for so long, because the Dreamgirls storyline appeals to musical theater devotees, namely gay men who thrill in watching divas rise, fall, and emancipate themselves. It’s an elite constituency, but Effie White meets with the approval of a Broadway cult that delights in seeing starlets embarrassing themselves only to then make dramatic comebacks, though not before they’ve proven themselves worthy of returning to the limelight; it’s as if Effie, like Mariah Carey and Madonna, must be told when to persevere. (Will Whitney Houston’s eventual comeback be sponsored by The Advocate?) Underdogs attract each other and Effie is especially appealing because she is played by an American Idol reject, but shouldn’t we be ashamed of applauding such a cardboard effigy to a real woman?
Before Dreamgirls, writer-director Bill Condon made two good films, Gods and Monsters and Kinsey, the latter of which boasted a series of scenes with striking mythic qualities that sensitively traced how
Alfred Kinsey’s relationship to his father shaped his personality and worldview. Given Condon’s talent for charting the way the past affects the present, the mediocrity of Dreamgirls is particularly flabbergasting. Effie, like Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles), the Ross stand-in who replaces her friend as the lead singer of The Dreamettes, has a history, but it never makes it onto the screen—not even a snapshot of her mama’s house in Detroit! Condon asks us to take entirely too much at face value—or, rather, song value—but how can we care about Effie’s pain over losing Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a proxy for Berry Gordy Jr., when their love affair gets no cinematic play? Everything (drug use, sex) is alluded to but never seen, articulated through songs that just aren’t very good.
Condon is a better filmmaker than Rob Marshall, whose Chicago—though poorly danced, abysmally sung, and non-directed—had the luxury of having remarkable music and lyrics as its foundation, but Dreamgirls is a musical of unremarkable songs that Condon doesn’t work to distinguish from one another on screen. Some shape and movement has been given to the picture in the editing room, but there’s no heart or real sense of urgency to the film’s many montages, which lamely adhere to a particular aesthetic mode of moving action along (even before a palpable sense of the present has been conveyed) perfected over the years by Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, and biopics like Ray. Equally fake is the glossiest welfare office the movies have ever seen and jazz halls that look as if they have never been smoked or danced in. The whole thing feels illegitimate, especially Beyoncé, who is unwatchable when she’s not singing, always struggling to find a convincing transition between her happy and sad faces. (The less said about Eddie Murphy, whose James “Thunder” Early suggests a gene splice of James Brown and one of those daddy-o cats from MGM cartoons, the better.)
Beyoncé’s range will be called into question but what about the film’s? Throughout Dreamgirls, Condon cuts to footage of blacks fighting on the streets—a struggle that only matters to The Dreamettes when it interferes with their success. This was true of the white-bread Supremes, but Condon isn’t seriously critical of this madness. (Exactly one scene suggests Deena was mindful of the world outside her pearly gates when Curtis doesn’t allow her to address racial strife through song, but Condon chooses not to express how her minor awakening was stirred into being.) The film’s potentially best scene begins with Effie throwing a fit and walking straight into the Civil Rights Movement. The real world happens to her but doesn’t open her eyes because Curtis comes outside, wraps his arms around her, and shields her from the truth. (Is this how he gets her pregnant?) That subtext is scary, but as projected on the screen, the cocoon Curtis weaves for The Dreamettes is made to look alluring. What follows is a dull saga of rise-and-fall music-biz clichés that begins with Effie leaving the group and ends with Deena emancipating herself by accepting her complicity (through song but not emotion, natch) in Effie’s failure. Been there, done that.
Compare the musical numbers from Dreamgirls with Annie Ross’s smoky, lived-in performances from Short Cuts and the charade of this film becomes especially apparent. Ross—Annie, not Diana—is more black than any of the sisters from Dreamgirls, and she’s British! There are some good songs in this musical, namely Effie’s solo number “One Night Only,” which actually sounds better when it’s swiped by The Dreamettes and made into a disco song and performed at a gay club. The film knows its fans, and so does Hudson. The young singer-actress’s vocal talent is unmistakable but Condon doesn’t see a woman in Effie, only a record studio on legs that spits out sass like bullet fire—always pleading for our you-go-girlisms and trying to get our fingers snap-snap-snapping. This reductivism should be insulting to women; instead, they applaud it alongside their guy pals. Because the film doesn’t care to articulate the emotions that haunt its characters, we must appreciate Hudson as we would a great American Idol performance: something to vote for using a cellphone. That shouldn’t be anyone’s idea of good cinema.