Condon's Crowd Pleaser Shaky on the History

Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls, from his own screenplay, with music from the original production by Henry Krieger and lyrics by Tom Eyen, has been adapted from the hit Broadway musical that opened at the Imperial Theatre on Dec. 20, 1981. The show plunged into a past showbiz phenomenon—the Motown sound of the 60’s and 70’s. Hence, Mr. Condon’s 21st-century adaptation of Michael Bennett’s early-80’s view of this period is now virtually ancient history. I can’t help wondering if Dreamgirls is but the latest example of a casually retro approach in the arts, a consequence of all the conveniently labor-lite recording and researching devices now in common use.

Still, the film is, at the very least, a highly polished and exquisitely well-performed attraction that may or may not justify the pricey blue-ribbon, reserved-seating strategy for the initial period of its release. Candor compels me to report that the audience at one of the last preview screenings applauded and even cheered after some of the numbers, particularly when a marvelously charismatic newcomer named Jennifer Hudson was doing the belting. She and a sensationally revitalized Eddie Murphy, who reproduces the antic 50’s energy of Little Richard, are the cast members most often mentioned for Oscars. The movie’s writer-director, Mr. Condon, scored big Oscar-wise with another musical adaptation, Chicago (2002), not so long ago—but perhaps not long ago enough to satisfy the perennially change-of-pace-seeking Oscar voters.

On the plus side, Mr. Condon has received high praise during the past decade for his direction of decidedly offbeat non-musical films like Kinsey (2004) and Gods and Monsters (1998). Still, I question some of his directorial choices in Dreamgirls, particularly his extensive borrowing of operatic recitatives from the stage original. This nonstop singing, both onstage and off, becomes the norm after the first half-hour or so of prose cinema, in which the characters are introduced with non-musical dialogue scenes. It was too jarring a transition for me, and after a while it made the movie seem to be running much longer than it actually was.

The self-confident American movie musical thrived from its baptism in blackface with Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer in 1927, through the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, until its slow death sometime in the 60’s with the demise of the studio system and Hollywood’s increasing dependence on European and Asian markets, which were not receptive to the non-naturalistic conventions that had made the musical the only new movie genre spawned by the onset of the talkies.

Critics and aestheticians have long argued over the genre conventions that separated the operetta, in which characters could burst into song in the street or in a rainbowed meadow, from the backstage musicals, which generally limited the singing and dancing to presumed performance venues. The Astaire-Rogers musicals were prime examples of the former category, and the Busby Berkeley extravaganzas were prime examples of the latter (though both traditions overlapped on occasion).

For many years now, the stage musical has become the tail that wagged the theatrical dog, and several disastrous attempts have been made to transfer the stage’s semi-operatic innovations to the screen. Dreamgirls may become the acid test of the degree to which the movie audience will accept pop music in the foreground rather than in the background of the dramatic action. Indeed, one wonders what the target audience is for this extended ode to the liberation of black-spirited music from the clutches of white disc jockeys, white recording executives and white big-city nightclub impresarios. Today’s theater audiences—who are routinely charged up to $100 a seat—tend to be older, whiter and more suburban than inner-city minority moviegoers. Still, many are addicted to American Idol on television and may flock to see one of that show’s runners-up, Ms. Hudson, for her spectacular performance in this film.

Dreamgirls begins with deceptive grunginess at a downscale Detroit vaudeville theater’s amateur night. A ragged trio called the Dreamettes—Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles), Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) and lead singer Effie White (Jennifer Hudson)—are slated to perform that evening. The Dreamettes are reputedly based on the real-life Supremes, in which Diana Ross took over the lead spot from the original front woman, Florence Ballard. Mr. Eyen’s plot for Dreamgirls, the play, re-created this switch with a degree of heartbreak and pathos that may or may not have applied to Ballard and Ms. Ross, although Ballard reportedly died later in a state of abject poverty. But fear not for her counterpart in Dreamgirls: Ms. Hudson’s slighted Effie suffers only for a time in soulful style, but what did you expect—grim reality? This is still a musical, however stylish and innovative.

Anyway, on their first and last amateur night, the Dreamettes arrive almost too late to compete in their shabby dresses and ancient dark-haired wigs. But once they go on, they are a sensation (both for me at the screening and the amateur-night patrons on-screen), performing one of the most rousing song-and-dance numbers in the whole movie. The song is aptly titled “Move,” and in it Ms. Hudson’s Effie significantly outshines her two companions. (I say “significantly” because the whole plot hinges on her perceived superiority to Ms. Knowles’ Deena.)

Despite the tumultuous applause for “Move,” the Dreamettes lose the contest to an obese male blues singer named Tiny Joe Dixon (Michael-Leon Wooley), who provides a funny sight gag on the essential futility of show business. While they are glumly discussing their dismal future in the music industry, the Dreamettes are approached by a seemingly smooth operator named Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) and offered a deal as backup singers for James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy) on his nationwide tour. Thunder takes one lingering, lascivious look at the Dreamettes and immediately agrees to the arrangement. But Thunder’s leering bark is worse than his bite when he discovers that the girls refuse to play around with married men.

Early on in the film, Curtis and Effie become an item. The character of Curtis is largely based on Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, whose artists swept America and the world throughout the 60’s and 70’s. By means fair and foul, Mr. Gordy trumped the crooked American record companies’ game of stealing black music for white performers like Pat Boone—and made more money in the process.

Yet Curtis is presented as the clear-cut villain of Dreamgirls, mainly for the variety of ways that he makes Effie suffer—first by dumping her while she’s pregnant to begin a relationship with Deena, whom he promotes as the lead singer of a new group called the Dreams. The occasion for forming this new group is the disastrous rejection of Thunder and the Dreamettes by an all-white audience in a white-owned Miami nightclub. Curtis decides to cut his losses in his prematurely ambitious plan to introduce black pop and rock artists to white audiences. Yet I found it hard to believe that Thunder would bomb so badly in a white nightclub during a period when blues-influenced performers like Elvis and the Beatles were sweeping all before them.

Of course, there may have been a generation gap at work here, but even so, I disbelieved the whole melodramatic thrust of the narrative in demonizing the Gordy-like Curtis, who could just as easily have been idealized as a champion of his race, particularly when played by a sympathetic actor like the previously Oscar-winning Mr. Foxx. What makes the narrative even more turgid is the insertion of newsreel clips of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Detroit race riots simply to establish a background for further demonizing Curtis when he rejects a civil-rights song written by Effie’s songwriter brother, C.C. White (Keith Robinson), which is performed by Thunder in a more thoughtful mood.

Even Deena finally displays enough gumption to walk out on Curtis after she belatedly realizes, in her solo song “Listen,” that he has always regarded her more as a “product” to be sold to the public than as the complex creature she really is. By this time, every plot twist seems so transparently contrived that even the songs begin to sound alike. Danny Glover’s Marty Madison, Thunder’s old-guard manager, is virtually beatified at the expense of Curtis, and Mr. Glover plays the saint very well. Still, I can’t help feeling that Old Hollywood is peering over the proscenium, nodding complacently at Dreamgirls’ every echo of its pseudo-anti-materialistic credo.

Even so, I have to admit that the film’s spectacular performances and production values will blow you away much of the time—and for that, Mr. Condon and his many colleagues deserve to be commended.

School Ties

Richard Eyre’s Notes on a Scandal, from a screenplay by Patrick Marber, based on the novel by Zoe Heller, just may be one of my 10 best movies of the year. With this year’s utterly insane flood of releases during the holiday season, I won’t know for several weeks at least (and perhaps not even then). The cast alone—Dame Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Bill Nighy, Andrew Simpson and Phil Davis, most notably—would be hard to beat as the year’s most effective ensemble. Ms. Dench’s Barbara Covett and Ms. Blanchett’s Sheba Hart share one of the oddest and most tumultuous relationships that one can imagine for two teachers in a working-class London high school (in which, as Barbara notes with world-weary cynicism in her voice-over diary: “In the old days, we confiscated cigarettes and ‘wank mags.’ Now it’s knives and crack cocaine. And they call it progress.”).

Not to put too fine a point to it, Barbara is a deviously predatory and pitifully lonely lesbian who soon has the new, attractive art teacher, Sheba, in her sights as her latest prey. The film, like the book, is told from Barbara’s point of view, but the movie is more evenly balanced between the two main characters. Also, the film’s ending is considerably different from the book’s (though critical etiquette—which I traditionally honor more in the breach than in the observance—compels me on this occasion to withhold both endings from my readers).

After Sheba invites Barbara to her posh home for dinner, Barbara is startled to discover that Sheba’s husband, Richard (Bill Nighy), is a much older ex-academic who now presides like a patriarch over a boisterous family, including Ben (Max Lewis), a grade-school boy with Down syndrome, and a teenage daughter, Polly (Juno Temple), who is a “pocket princess,” in Barbara’s caustic view.

The first crisis in the film erupts when Barbara discovers that Sheba is having a covert sexual affair with Steven Connelly (Andrew Simpson), an underage working-class boy with an interest in art. Barbara makes Sheba promise to give up the boy—a promise that Sheba keeps breaking out of her deep loneliness and emotional confusion. Barbara nonetheless keeps the criminal affair a secret—at least until Sheba lets her down by being insufficiently consoling after Barbara loses her beloved cat. Barbara’s revenge consists in revealing the secret to Brian (Phil Davis), one of Sheba’s pathetically enamored teaching colleagues. In one of her funniest lines, Barbara guiltily says of her betrayal of Sheba: “Judas had the grace to hang himself”—but then softens the self-criticism by adding: “But only according to Matthew, the most sentimental of all the apostles.”

This dark humor, which typifies both the book and the movie, provides a tasteful delight for the civilized palate. Thus, Ms. Dench and Ms. Blanchett are empowered to make what might have otherwise degenerated into a sordid cat-and-mouse game into an exquisitely dark comedy of manners and morals.

Condon's Crowd Pleaser Shaky on the History