Anika Noni Rose
Pity the poor film critic and what they have to sit through. Half way through Bill Condon’s car crash of a musical Dreamgirls, I wrote in my notes: “Please, no more singing”. I was ground down by the sheer mediocrity of a score that sought to celebrate Motown’s glory days, but delivered anaemic soul-lite of the kind that goes down well with the kind of people who call Beyonc’s music R&B.
Based on the hit 1981 Broadway musical, Dreamgirls uses the story of a three piece girl band (very loosely based on Diana Ross and the Supremes) as a medium through which to tell the story of black music in the US and the Civil Rights movement.
The Dreamettes, led by big voiced Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), fail to win a rigged talent show, despite being the hottest act on the bill. Ambitious proto-music mogul and used car salesman Curtis (Jamie Foxx) steps in and offers them a gig as back-up singers for libidinous R&B singer Jimmy (Eddie Murphy). Within a short time the band is touring the States, scoring hits on the black music scene and looking for a breakthrough that will take them to the top of the charts.
But despite paying off DJs, Jimmy (played by Murphy as a poor man’s James Brown) is just too raunchy for white audiences, and Foxx takes the girls off to form a cabaret-stopping girl band with Deena (Beyonc Knowles) replacing the raunchier Effie upfront. The formula works and the band races to the top of the charts. But while the Dreamettes soar, Effie is left behind, sliding into single parenthood and misery.
The audience should have high expectations of a musical with Bill Condon at the helm. Condon was Oscar-nominated for his screenplay of Chicago and wrote savvy scripts for Kinsey and Gods and Monsters. Judging by his track record, he knows showbiz, in all its gruesomeness. He also knows how to create characters with a story you care about. So what happened with Dreamgirls?
As a musical about music, the film mines every clich in the book: from why you shouldn’t shag the boss to real soul singers have hard lives and bad boys end up on drugs. The script offers surprisingly few clues about motivation, making it hard to engage with a group of people whose relationships were barely defined throughout and who appeared unable to finish a sentence without bursting into song. As anyone who grew up with Rogers and Hammerstein knows, what happens between the tunes is important too.
Attempts to weave a wider context of civil rights into the story are appallingly crass: Martin Luther King’s Dream speech is a B-side on one of Jimmy’s singles; Effie find herself in the midst of a civil rights riot (her face registers only mild surprise); and the girls and Jimmy produce a black power song that has more in common with a Coke ad than Gil Scott-Heron.
None of this would have mattered much if the score had resembled more closely the music it was trying to pastiche, or if the film had not wasted the talents of some fine actors. Danny Glover as Jimmy’s spurned manager Marty is like a shadow in the wings, while the magnificent Jamie Foxx does his best with what the script gives him – mainly meaningful looks and the odd one line put down.
Much has been made of Hudson’s performance as Effie, and she is undoubtedly eye-catching and her voice powerful. But her over-the-top histrionics threatens to turn potentially moving scenes into parody, especially when she finally gets the boot from the band. In the end Eddie Murphy is the one who comes out best from this mess, adding edge to a stock sleazy bad boy. It left me guessing what he, and the rest of them, could have done with a better script.