By Hemanth Kissoon
“Music is supposed to sell.” Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Foxx)
Musicals arguably take a greater willing suspension of disbelief than say watching the Death Star blow up or Julia Roberts’ movie star fall in love with a West London travel bookstore owner. Whether a film is sci-fi or wish-fulfilment it attempts to put credible actions in unreal situations, whereas, musicals uniquely do the reverse by having the characters suddenly break out into song to reveal concealed emotions or to push the narrative along. DREAMGIRLS is no exception to this. How an audience approaches this film is how they approach the genre generally.
DREAMGIRLS is a morality tale about self-fulfilment, ambition, oppression and arrogance. We follow the rags-to-riches story of The Dreamettes (Knowles, Hudson and Anika Noni Rose) as they enter an amateur talent contest which precedes the main event of James “Thunder” Early (Murphy). The Dreamettes are innocent but motivated and their passion and talent (backed by song-writer C.C., played by Keith Robinson) are recognized by opportunist Curtis Taylor, Jr. who transforms them into a pop force of nature. Starting in 1960s Detroit and covering over a decade, this is epic storytelling, as the highs and lows of success, racism, romance and betrayal are catalogued lovingly and with great eye for detail. Whereas Chicago, with all its razzle-dazzle is really just a superficial take on celebrity with a nod towards female empowerment, here is a film with a greater attempt at substance.
The best musicals have catchy, passionate songs that can be listened to without the need for imagery, and DREAMGIRLS certainly has many of them. The film references the hey-day of Motown music with a seemingly thinly veiled look at Diana Ross and The Supremes, and the turbulent times in America of segregation, Martin Luther King and Malcom X. There is also a look at the corruption of the drive for success and its maintenance once achieved, as well as the situation when talent and traditional attractiveness are at odds. Parallels can perhaps be cheekily drawn between The Dreamettes and Destiny’s Child. While the messages are not original at least something is being said.
Production design, costumes and make-up are all impressively rich, from Murphy’s James Bown/Little Richard-esque hair to Foxx’s office fetishizing the beauty of Knowles. There is much to entertain the eye. It has also has a red-hot cast: a recent Oscar winner (Foxx), one of the world’s top modern pop luminaries (Knowles), a reality TV star (Hudson of American Idol fame), gravitas (Glover), and a revelatory performance by a comedian in a serious role, a la Robin Williams in DEAD POET’S SOCIETY and Jim Carrey in THE TRUMAN SHOW, Murphy. The direction is a little flat though. Condon has certainly made a step up from GODS AND MONSTERS and KINSEY, but he relies on editing rather than interesting camera-work, which is reminiscent of cookie-cutter pop videos rather than great cinema.
DREAMGIRLS is truly entertaining for musical lovers with its energetic pacing and distinct character creations, which elevate it above lacklustre fair such as the highly over-rated CHICAGO adaptation, but it does not reach the imaginative and stylistic verve of Baz Luhrman’s MOULIN ROUGE.