Believe it or not, there are gaps in my musical-theatre knowledge base, and Dreamgirls is one of them. Before I saw the movie last night, I knew only the basic story, and one of the songs—no prizes for guessing which one. I was actually fortunate enough to see Jennifer Holliday perform that song, or a cutting from that song, live at the 1998 Tony Awards (I was in the audience), as part of a "salute to divas" opening number that also included Patti LuPone and Betty Buckley. Until that moment I had never even heard of Jennifer Holliday, but with just 30 seconds of "And I Am Telling You..." she blew everybody else off the stage.
Now I have seen the much-hyped film version of the show, and if, like me, you are mostly unfamiliar with the source material, let me assure you that there is a reason you only know one song from Dreamgirls. And I'm not sure the movie is worth seeing just on the strength of that one really good song.
Oh, the story is a great one, no doubt about that. But it's not very well told, is it? I mean, the story-songs are embarrassing. I cringed my way through "Family," and as the lyrics got worse and worse, I wondered, why didn't they just cut this song? Until they reprised it—twice! And the "numbers," while less embarrassing, aren't much better. They all sound more or less alike, so that even the ones that supposedly take place in the early 60s feel and sound like they were written in the late 70s. And the fact that they're all basically interchangeable makes it hard for me to believe that Curtis would bother to "steal" C.C.'s songs—not once, but twice—when he could probably write one just as disposable himself.
But it isn't just the source material that's a problem here. The screenplay seems determined not to take advantage of the fact that, in a movie, you have opportunities for character development that you don't have on a stage. The characters here have almost no chance to establish themselves; the only way you know they are supposed to be in relationships with each other is that they sometimes come right out and tell you. "Curtis is supposed to love me!" Is he? Because I had no clue. It's hard to feel the sting of Effie's betrayal when you have no evidence (besides the oft-repeated insistence that "We are a family") that she or anyone else is particularly invested in the whole mess to begin with.
The performances: well, dork that I am, I went into this looking forward to seeing Anika Noni Rose. Never saw Jennifer Hudson on American Idol (I've never seen Idol at all), and I don't know that I've seen Beyoncé in anything other than a still photograph. Anika was great, but if you saw Caroline, or Change you already knew that. Beyoncé impressed me; she's no Meryl Streep, but she seems comfortable enough in front of the camera, and she did a great job being beautiful, which is Deena's main responsibility. Jennifer Hudson can certainly sing, but those who have been hailing her arrival as a capital-s Star are being a little too kind. Her acting is endearingly amateurish—she's not hard to watch, but she's got some work to do. And even careful editing of the Dreams' numbers can't hide the fact that, compared to Rose and Beyoncé, Hudson is no professional. Again, she's not bad, but her dance moves aren't as sharp, her posture isn't as neat, her dreamy-eyed expression isn't as confident. If you walked into this movie having never seen any of the women before, and knowing only that one of them was plucked from the American Idol amateur talent pool, you would have no trouble guessing which one. Because of this—and because, as I mentioned above, the story is so ill-told—Effie's being fired from the group doesn't seem totally unjust. Meanwhile, Jamie Foxx is fine until he has to sing; then he becomes self-conscious and palpably uncomfortable. (You'll notice that they cut away from him for almost all of his big second-act song, "When I First Saw You," instead taking the opportunity to offer yet more evidence that Beyoncé is attractive.) Eddie Murphy is quite good, good enough to make the script seem even more corny than it would without him. And there are some fun cameos: Jaleel White, trying (and not really succeeding) to hide his Urkel-ness under a coat of smarm; John Lithgow and John Krasinski, whose double-cameo made me gasp, twice, so shocking was the sudden intrusion of whiteness (and Lithgow's wig!).
"And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" is my all-time favorite song title. It's so ludicrously unwieldy, and it's attached to a song that is so surprisingly powerful. But here it left me cold, I have to admit. It's not that Hudson is over-the-top—she's many notches below Holliday on the histrionics scale—but the sequence makes plain the difference between hearing the song performed live, when the straining and the modulating and the naked desperation are all part of a thrilling, in-the-moment experience, and seeing it performed in a movie, when the stomach-clutching and foot-stomping are just part of a lip-synching routine, which comes as the climax of a not-very-convincing musical argument. You know there's no real reason for the performer to look like she's giving the song her all, and so it's faintly embarrassing to watch. (So is this, for the first three minutes or so, but at least it pays off.)
The "numbers" come closer to capturing the excitement of live theatre, and some of the dance routines are colorful enough to hide the lameness of the songs. But plot point after plot point appears and passes by without any dramatic impact, and after a while it's all very frustrating: I want to care! Why don't I care?! Then, just when it starts to seem like Dreamgirls will never leave you, you finally arrive at the best part of the movie: the closing credits. I'm not just being snarky here; the credits are actually very well designed, much more intelligent and exciting than anything in the film itself. (Except for the costumes; that's one Oscar this movie should have locked up.) I am happy to see that people are enjoying this movie, because it seems like it's good for the theatre in some vague way, but as far as I can see, it's far from a masterpiece of stage or screen. Sorry to kill the dream.
Have you seen it? What did you think?