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Afro Fantasia: Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls

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Afro Fantasia: Bill Condon’s <em>Dreamgirls</em>

Remember that scene in The Blues Brothers where Jake Blues catches the Holy Ghost while watching James Brown lead a leaping, flying congregation of black folks in a gospel blowout?That’s the spirit—the soul—of Dreamgirls, Bill Condon’s film adaptation of the long-running Broadway musical. Writer-director Condon adores the most spectacular, super heroic aspects of what used to be called The Black Experience as surely as Blues Brothers director John Landis loves JB’s permed pompadour. It’s all flying negroes and flying hair.

As embarrassed as some white critics (and one White critic) have been about Dreamgirls’ lumpy mix of flamboyant negritude with bland, cruise ship arrangements of faux Motown pop, black audiences have mostly returned the love. Here, the music’s quality matters less than its thematic resonance; the characters’ thinness and broadness are less important than their vibrancy and familiarity. Dreamgirls is a white moviemaker’s sorta wrongheaded but sincerely besotted Afro fantasia, destined to go in the Ebony subscriber’s collection alongside Carmen Jones, Wattstax, Sparkle, The Color Purple and Coming to America. Love is what keeps this parade float of a movie aloft—until a failure of nerve and insight built into the Broadway original sends it floating far away from emotional reality on the helium of hope.

Dreamgirls is the saga of girl R&B group The Dreamettes (later called The Dreams) rise and Supremes-style dissolution across the 1960’s and 70’s. Despite denials surely demanded by various entertainment lawyers over the years, Dreamgirls is clearly the story of Berry Gordy’s Motown, his love affair with Supreme Diana Ross and the rude way he ejected singer Florence Ballard from the trio. Gordy saw beautiful Miss Ross as having more crossover appeal than the more talented but average-looking Ballard, so he made Ross the lead. It’s a classic tragedy of 20th Century American music: The black artist-entrepreneur who can’t rise without selling his soul or somehow destroying his musical kin. August Wilson’s stage masterpiece Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the great drama on this subject; Dreamgirls has always carried the potential to be the great musical of same. That potential evaporates during the Hollywood ending, in which the Dreams reunite with their downtrodden Ballard, Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) and Gordy figure Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) realizes he’s the father of Effie’s daughter. The moment is pure Spielberg Color Purple redemption. The group’s Ross, Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) hugs it out with Effie onstage, smoothing over a decade of betrayal, humiliation and outright theft of Effie’s music.

Bullshit.

Florence Ballard died poor and unheralded at 32 while Diana Ross collected Oscar nominations and Grammys. Dreamgirls is set up for just such a tragic conclusion, but Tom Eyen, who wrote the Broadway show’s book, chose to let Effie live. The trouble isn’t that Effie survives but that the powerhouse singer returns to the stage a compromised, chastened also-ran who’s just happy to join in on the show’s blandest song. If you’re going to dream a happy ending for Effie, why not one in which she truly wins? Let Taylor’s Rainbow Records crumble behind its payola schemes and overspending while the American pop audience turns against pretty, empty Deena, embracing Effie’s kind of earthy, unruly Soul.

But an ending which doesn’t treat the Dreams reunion as the travesty it is just doesn’t ring true. Effie’s failure and death would have jolted the complacent, historically ignorant, musically incurious viewer into the reality that pop isn’t an American Idol meritocracy—that there’s a lot of musical treasure out there beyond the charts and the official story. Dreamgirls doesn’t indict the racist, Faustian American recording industry, merely the ruthless ambition of Gordy types. In the end, Curtis senses the error of his ways and lowers his head penitently before all the folks he’s wronged over the years. Yes, he’s a musical Mister from The Color Purple! (To compound the deja vu, the real Mister, Danny Glover, as an industry sycophant turned benefactor, beams from the audience at the reunion he helped orchestrate.)

But, as with The Color Purple, none of these weaknesses will stop black moviegoers from loving Dreamgirls to pieces. The last time I saw a predominantly black audience get so excited about a flick was at a screening of Robert Townsend’s The Five Heartbeats (the male Dreamgirls) in 1991. Dreamgirls looks like a more lavish, stylized fraternal twin of Townsend’s film. Both have a storybook sense of the ’60s and are at something of a loss at how to encapsulate the 70s.

But Condon’s visual flair out-dazzles Townsend’s televisual storytelling. Every grand entrance, turnabout and epiphany gets a dizzying Die Hard room-to-room whip pan, swooning crane shot, or spine-tingling slow fade out. This director has some Stanley Donen, some Bollywood, in his blood. He uses these chops to keep a fearsome momentum but also to underscore the spirit of the age Dreamgirls depicts. In the montage that traces Rainbow’s rise from car dealership to fledgling record label, Condon captures the blushing bride excitement of young black folks bursting out of the Civil Rights era with a crazy dream, money cobbled together from myriad hustles and the bravery that comes from having absolutely nothing to lose. Right on. This is the romance of wage slavery emancipation most of Dreamgirls’ working stiff target audience pursues in real life, with their side hustles and off-the-books home businesses. (In one scene which confirmed that the audience I was sitting in was falling madly in love with the movie, Taylor conscripts a young typist from a crowd of applicants outside the Rainbow office, but when he notices her overlong manicured fingernails, he starts to turn her away. She instantly snaps off the fake nails and bounces on into the office. The applause and laughter that erupted from the audience at that moment was pure, grateful recognition. We all been there, sister.)

Condon realizes that the performances are his best hope of drawing out such resonance and overcoming (or even slightly subverting) the stage musical’s tidy resolution. It hardly matters that the central characters are so wildly inconsistent in motivation, they seem to have split personalities. (Curtis goes from slick, transparent manager-pimp to ingenious grassroots visionary to Ike/Suge/Papa Joe oppressor; Eddie Murphy’s Jackie Wilson-styled James “Thunder” Early similarly oscillates between cartoon ladies man in curly conk and glitter vests and supersensitive cokehead Marvin Gaye in soul brother denim jacket.) Whatever emotion or position the characters happen to be pushing at a given moment, Condon makes them hurl it out from the diaphragm and the heart. So even though Curtis ultimately comes off as a manipulative, womanizing hustler, somewhere in there we get a just as convincing glimpse of his human, even heroic, side—his ambition to conquer markets and pop culture terrain outside the chitlin’ circuit; his obsessive love of Deena as a regal personification of “Black is Beautiful.” Likewise, although generally there isn’t much chemistry between any two characters in the film, the communal love overflowing in the ensemble number “Family” is convincing enough to induce a crying jag. It helps that Condon tops it off with the loveliest, least saccharine group hug in cinema history.

Of course, most folks are rushing to Dreamgirls for two reasons: To find out if Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” really stacks up to Jennifer Holliday’s iconic version; and to see just how quickly her presence and singing voice blow Beyoncé off the screen. Well, those expecting a weak performance from Beyoncé will be delighted/confounded to find that she has become a decent actress. After a few robotic performances in a forgettable MTV “Hip Hopera” and an Austin Powers flick, she actually showed growth and promise in 2003’s The Fighting Temptations. In Dreamgirls, she plays, well, basically herself—a young Diva whose beauty and ties to management give her a power she’s not too comfortable with. And, yes, playing basically yourself in a context that invites self-consciousness does qualify as a bitch of an acting challenge.

As for Hudson, you’ve heard it all by now. She’s miraculous, touched by the same force that sent Jake Blues somersaulting to the pulpit. In middle age, she will make a legendary, inevitable Ma Rainey. In the meantime, we’ll probably have to endure years of a Ho’wood shuffle, with Hudson trading maid uniforms for gray wigs for jail suits. Time will tell if, unlike the recording industry depicted in Dreamgirls, Ho’wood has learned anything from a performance by a plump black woman that makes you want to climb into the screen and make passionate love to her. Um, maybe I should speak for myself—but at the screening of Dreamgirls I caught, Effie’s cry, “And you’re gonna love meeee” was answered by a live chorus of ordinary Joes: “We do, ma! We do!”

Steven Boone is a New York-basic critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl Is Heavy and the publisher of the pop culture blog Big Media Vandalism.