Ugly Duckling
By Noel Vera

Dir: Bill Condon (2006)

After more than two decades in development hell the Broadway musical "Dreamgirls" has finally come to the big screen, and while it's not a great musical or even the best recent one (I'd say that would be the "Once More, With Feeling" episode of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer"), it's better by far than anything we've seen in years ("Evita," "Chicago," "Moulin Rouge," anyone?).

It's a melodrama with musical numbers; a soapy retelling of a famous singing group's dirtiest laundry (The Supremes, and its breakout star Diana Ross); a modest, fairly crafted revival of a moribund genre, all rolled up in one unashamedly glitzy package. It's the story of an ugly duckling--Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) a wannabe pop diva with a weight problem who, instead of becoming a swan by story's end is instead surpassed by Deena Jones (Beyonce), a real (or at least more conventional) beauty, the classic morality tale of surface winning out over substance, which had illusions of matters being otherwise.

Maybe the biggest problem the show has is that it's essentially a retelling; the songs are pastiches (that at times approach parody) of the Motown songs they're supposed to emulate. Actually, they're less than parodies--a parody would at least try and sound like the source material it's making fun of; these are overblown, Hollywood motion-picture soundtrack notions of what Motown's supposed to sound like. Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen can try hard as they can (and they try very hard), but the works of geniuses like Marvin Gaye are sui generis, and therefore inimitable.

The film very rarely comes to life in its musical numbers; maybe only twice, and mostly thanks to the actors--"What About Me?" comes to mind, and of course, the showstopping "And I'm Telling You." Most of the time director Bill Condon is content to cut away and go into a montage sequence that furthers the story, instead of wasting time on the number--and for once I'm not complaining.

Maybe the movie's second biggest problem is the ostensible lead role, Deena Jones; granted she's supposed to be a mediocre singer with real stage presence, couldn't they get an actress who could sing instead of a singer who can't act? Beyonce, revealingly, looks best in a series of photo shoots, suggesting the crystallized, rather inflexible vision of her created by her husband/manager Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx, channeling Berry Gordy, Jr.): she looks nice, and her beauty can stand a variety of transformations, some of them bizarre, but ask her to act and she gives you her impression of a photo cut-out moving its mouth and making sounds, otherwise devoid of life.

First half of the show, she's rather wan and bland, easily malleable in a sweet, unoffensive way; when she starts to think for herself--fielding film offers behind her husband's back, singing the song "Listen" (written exclusively for the film) towards the uncomprehending Curtis, she shows a furtive vitality which, thanks to her underwritten character, seems to come from nowhere.

The rest of the cast does much better: Jamie Foxx is at his smoothest, seductive best as Curtis (he reminds me of the David Selznick-type producer Kirk Douglas played in "The Bad and the Beautiful," only here there's no last-minute justification of the man's Machiavellian machinations); when later the castle Curtis has built up (Motown Records in real life) starts crumbling, the shiny veneer of his charm starts looking forlorn, even heroic.

Foxx's Curtis might be the picture's true tragic center--he made everyone believe he was building a family when really he was building an empire, his empire; the tragedy lies in the possibility that his vision could have lasted longer if he had been more forthcoming. Eddie Murphy is hilarious and in the end even moving as the increasingly anachronistic James "Thunder" Early--in the first half he's a heavily pomaded sleazeball celebrity; by the picture's second half he's obsolescent, obscure, and chafing under the weight of all the flavorless pop songs Curtis is forcing on him (when at one point Early breaks out in an unabashed funk number, you can see the exuberance in Murphy's face).

His James Brown-like dance moves might remind you uncomfortably of times when he would ape the great performer during his stand-up act; but when he's asked to just stand there reacting to his dimming fame, the camera homing in on his careworn face, you feel the character's pathos.

Foxx's Curtis may be "Dreamgirl's" central consciousness and Murphy's Early its nostalgic soul (something at one point Murphy claims to have--and believe it or not, you find yourself actually agreeing with him), but Jennifer Hudson's Effie White (a considerably cleaned-up, nonalcoholic version of the great Florence Ballard) is its outsized heart. Hudson's Cinderella story is famous, of course--she was dismissed from "American Idol," and went on to win this role (ironically, a January 2007 Vanity Fair magazine cover of the film--echoing the musical's storyline--featured not her but her slimmer, better-known co-stars Beyonce, Foxx, Murphy), and eventually, one of Hollywood's gold doorstops.

This wasn't the first time the role or its players had to struggle for recognition: when Jennifer Holliday originated the role onstage she walked out several times during development--the first time because her character died after the first act, the second when the Deena Jones' character's role had been expanded in the second act. Later, Whitney Huston was attached to play the role of Deena, but the deal stalled when she insisted on singing some of Effie's songs, particularly "And I'm Telling You."

I remember watching a TV show where Holliday had been allowed to sing the song: never mind the grainy video image, or the mono sound, or the so-so music and lyrics, it was the massive outpouring of pain--modulated, precisely controlled--on display that held me enthralled. Hudson on the big screen with stereo sound can't wipe out my memory of Holliday, but she doesn't do it dishonor--no small thing, in my book.

We go through the story with her, we come to know her Effie--an outsized ego, much like Early (I thought they would have been perfect for each other. Perhaps too perfect)--wrapped around a kernel of vulnerability. When she explodes onscreen with "And I'm Telling You" it's the tremendous passion (a passion you've come to know during the course of the movie) that lifts it above the overfamiliar caterwauling you hear from so many song contests and Mariah Carey ballads.

Condon, a longtime fan of the show, helps give the unpromising material more visual snap and conviction than it deserves. He uses relatively simple camerawork and editing--not enough to osterize the choreography, but enough to give it snap and sparkle. He uses devices--the camera looking on an actor in rehearsal, cutting to a reverse shot that turns to reveal the actor before a live audience, in full performance--that are old, old, old, but even so your blood throbs to the excitement generated.

Sometimes he comes up with inspired imagery: the mirrors reflecting and multiplying the many voices speaking out against Effie during the crucial fight scene that later become (when Deena and Curtis and everyone else abandons her) multiple copies of Effie onstage as she sings her big number--deprived of an audience to love her, she wills up her own. Condon (like Hudson) pours everything into this song--spotlights flash and blaze above Hudson as she sings, and it's a visual metaphor for her emotions; at one point she's poised in front of a particularly brilliant light, her shadow trailing her like tattered sleeves, echoing Liza Minnelli singing her heart out in the finale to "Cabaret."

If there's a flaw to Condon's approach, it's in trying to insert a sense of historicity--paralleling the girls' rise with Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement and the emergence of a black culture--into the mix; the attempt's admirable, and I love the fluid editing as he moves from staged to archive footage and back, but either he didn't work on it enough or the book's too limited to allow him to make more connections.

Condon is fond of biopics--his last film was an urgently needed retelling (in the face of today's sexual conservatism) of the life of taboo-breaking, frank-talking Alfred Kinsey; he'd done a biopic on a director of a great musical--James Whale, who did "Showboat" in 1936--but one would never suspect he had a "Dreamgirls" inside him. One wishes he'd go at it again, this time with better material.

Note: First published in Businessworld, 03/16/07.
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March 30, 2007