Things I Learned Watching Dreamgirls
All you have to do is dream?
A couple of days ago, VH1 showed the 1998 TV movie The Temptations. I'd never seen it, so I watched for a little while, and it was, predictably enough, pretty meh: brutally expository dialogue, broad acting, flat production-design. It looks and feels exactly like what it is, a made-for-TV movie. In virtually every way, it's a vastly inferior movie to Dreamgirls. Both movies cover the same period of American music, and both follow the same basic story-arc: the rise and fall of a popular black singing group. Dreamgirls has an exponentially higher budget, and it shows: dazzling cinematography, spotless period-details, great pacing, amazing acting. Its story punches the enormously satisfying emotional buttons that Hollywood's screenwriting army can find when it's feeling uncommonly inspired. The movie opens with the sound of drumstick hitting cowbell and ends with a shower of gold confetti, and more movies should begin with the sound of a drumstick hitting a cowbell and end with a shower of gold confetti. I was sucked in for all two and a half hours. Dreamgirls is definitely a better way to spend an afternoon than The Temptations, except for one nagging little detail: the music.
The Temptations is a straightforward based-in-fact story with its licensing all in place, and so it has the advantage of access to the actual music from the era it depicts. Dreamgirls is a fictionalized, mutated history of the Supremes, and so the original Broadway play and the movie that comes from it have to settle for music written directly for the play and the movie, songs that never had a place in the outside world. They're Broadway pastiches of 60s pop music, which of course means they don't sound anything remotely like 60s pop music. The ballads, even the good ones, sound like Diane Warren in Vegas. The faster songs basically sound like disco, so it's a bit funny when one of the characters sing an actual disco song, and you can only tell it's supposed to be disco because the bass is a bit louder and she's wearing a gold-spangled costume. And that disco song is probably the best song in the movie; disco aesthetics and Broadway aesthetics are two sides of the same coin, so it's not at all shocking that Broadway songwriters would be able to pull of disco better than any of the other genres they attempt to recreate. In the film's plot-logic, though, disco is the enemy of artistic integrity. "That rhythm takes all the feeling out of the music," one character sputters. The disco song is supposedly a mass-marketed/bastardized version of a tinkly soul ballad that another character has already sung, but the disco version feels a lot more powerful and alive than its more movie-authentic counterpart.
That's part of the problem with the idea of telling a pop-music story as a grand opera: operas need plots, so characters have to become archetypes, whether those archetypes fit completely or not. It's a bit ridiculous to see the Berry Gordy character being played as the villain, but then, someone needs to fuel the plot's engine. But the movie has a weird and complicated approach to the ways in which popular music actually becomes popular. It's a thrill to see the Dreams hearing their song on the radio for the first time, but radio, or more specifically white radio, is also shown as the downfall of the group, the great evil that corrupts their pristine artistry. The characters willing to subvert their talent to the machine prosper, and the ones who won't or can't fall behind. They're either sell-outs or martyrs. The real stories in the music industry are never that simple.
But Dreamgirls is a satisfying movie in part because it barely even acknowledges reality. David Denby of the New Yorker identified Eddie Murphy's Jimmy "Thunder" Early character as a James Brown stand-in, and that's why David Denby of the New Yorker is not a music critic. James Brown never had anything to do with Motown. There's a bit of Brown in Early, but there's also a bit of Ike Turner and Marvin Gaye and David Ruffin and Jackie Wilson and Kurtis Blow and Eddie Murphy. Murphy plays the character beautifully and brings a lot to the performance scenes. Beyonce Knowles, the closest thing to Diana Ross that the world has since seen, is just fine most of the time. For the first half of the movie, she basically reenacts that one shot from the "Ring the Alarm" video where she looks like a scared haywire robot. But she totally changes when she's called upon to sing, and her bitch-demon metamorphisis halfway through is a beautiful thing to behold. Everyone who's written critically about the movie has mentioned how Jennifer Hudson just chews the movie up and spits it out, and it's completely true; she's completely devastating almost every time she's on the screen. By all means, go see the movie if you haven't already. Just know that you'll learn more about Motown from spending ten minutes with Wikipedia or from listening to "Burnt Ashes."
Voice review: Scott Foundas on Dreamgirls