I am the queen of musicals – I just love them. I love that unique blend of song, dance and drama. I love a well-crafted musical with just the right number of songs, inserted in just the right places. It fills me with delight, it sends shivers down my spine, it makes me smile, cry and laugh – it is a pure joy and a special kind of release. I love the ‘fantasy-ness’ of musicals… nothing allows you to escape into another world better than a really good musical. For me the best musicals are fantasies which still manage to have strong elements of social relevance and realism – movies which are escapist but still have a strong resonance. And of course, the songs have to be solid – in terms of lyrical content as well as the music itself.
Obviously, the stage is the true home of the musical, but for those of us who can’t afford the ticket prices (except on very special occasions), the film versions will have to do. In addition, movie musicals give us the opportunity to see musicals which are no longer on stage and are unlikely to ever be revived – it’s a special but very rare treat when the stage actors get to re-interpret their roles onscreen – Rex Harrison and Yul Brynner got this opportunity for the legendary performances in My Fair Lady and The King and I, but their female counterparts didn’t. (I sometimes wish I could go back in time and space just to watch Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews do My Fair Lady on Broadway – and I still feel bad that we didn’t get to see Julie as ‘Eliza’ on celluloid).
Musicals tend to be longer than 90 minutes because of the songs, and for that reason can be difficult to adapt to the standard film format. Being a Bollywood fan, I obviously have no problem with ‘longer’ movies, so I get a bit miffed when the quality of a musical is sacrificed just to get it to be the ‘right’ length.
I think it’s a well-known fact that Hollywood has lost its knack for the musical – the ‘golden age’ of the musical is over. For this reason, my favourite Hollywood musicals are the oldies – the ones with Rodgers & Hammerstein music (South Pacific, Oklahoma!, Carousel, The Sound of Music etc), the fabulous films from the days of Judy Garland, Leslie Caron, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse et al (Easter Parade, Gigi, The Wizard of Oz, High Society, Singing in the Rain, Lili, Hans Christian Andersen etc).
The more recent Hollywood musicals, while not bad, do not, in my opinion, measure up to the oldies. I mean, ‘Moulin Rouge’ was ok, but it’s not the kind of movie I’d see again – ‘Chicago’ was better because the performances were stronger (especially Catherina Zeta-Jones’s excellent Oscar-winning turn) but… still no masterpiece. For me, those movies just lacked some of the sense of fun and abandon the old movies had… that joy… that heart… not that the oldies all had that, of course, but I’ll come back to that. I’ve enjoyed the modern movies which were not technically musicals but which made extensive use of music (because they were about real/fictional musicians) a lot more – movies like Ray, Selena, Gypsy, The Rose (I do love the Divine Miss M when she sings - nothing like it), What's Love Got to Do With It (Angela Bassett was robbed of the Oscar), Walk the Line (love it), the Judy Garland Story (with a fantastic Judy Davis) and Hustle n Flow (don't let me get started on Terrence Howard now), among others.
‘Dreamgirls’ is a treat for me because it’s the best of both worlds – it’s about musicians (so much drama there) and it’s also a musical in the true sense of the word – with music actually telling the story. It’s based on (in a satirical style) some great musical history (probably my favourite era of modern music) – the fabulous Motown day with the diva-licious Diana (read Deena) Ross and the Supremes (read Dreams). I love the fact that although I missed the famous Broadway run of the original stage musical, a worthy tribute (yet, from all accounts with its own ‘personality’) has been made.
Dreamgirls is a thoroughly modern movie (especially in terms of choreography) but it has the feel and the heart of many of the oldies. I love the passion and freshness you can feel from the filmmakers – this is where I think Bill Condon succeeded the most. Like I said, even some of the classic old musicals sometimes suffered from a lack of heart – ‘My Fair Lady’ is a good example. It had all the right elements – Rex Harrison at his best in an Oscar-winning performance, great sets and costumes, technically almost-perfect in terms of production quality, Audrey Hepburn in a very good performance (while I wish Julie had gotten the role, I can’t deny that Audrey did her best – even if she couldn’t sing her own songs). But it just lacked heart – it just lacked that freshness – that enthusiasm and joie-de-vivre that you need for a really good musical, which is what films like ‘Singing in the Rain’ had – and ‘Dreamgirls’ has that in spades.
Where shall I begin? The performances – Jennifer Hudson’s performance has been praised to high heavens by almost everyone else and I see why. She is amazing in this film – her onscreen presence is so powerful yet so natural. I actually missed her in the scenes she was absent from. She had such depth in this performance, she never over-acts, she just flows with all this real emotion – and she has such confidence that it’s amazing to think that this is her first movie. And that voice… whoa… it sent shivers down my spine. I have the legendary Tony Awards ceremony Jennifer Holliday rendition of ‘And I am Telling you I’m Not Going’ on my PC and listen to it (and marvel at it, thinking no-one but no-one could ever sing the song as good as that) all the time… but this Jennifer H. has really done justice to the song – and to ‘I am Changing’, and all the other songs. Just a great, great voice… but more on Ms. Hudson later.
My second favourite performance in this film came from a veteran, Mr. Eddie Murphy. I love his old comedies (Trading Places, Coming to America, the Beverly Hills Cop movies, Bowfinger (with Steve Martin - one of my all-time faves)) but it’s been a while since Eddie did an ‘adult’ movie… he’s been doing lots of family stuff like ‘Shrek’ and ‘Dr. Dolittle’… and this film made me realise how much I’ve missed him. This role ('James Thunder Early') was perfect for him… cocky yet vulnerable, funny as heck, crazy, tragic, self-absorbed yet so giving and generous, so over-the-top but also somehow contained and sensitively interpreted. Loved it, loved it, loved it.
Jamie Foxx and Anika Noni Rose also did great in this movie – they both nailed their roles – fantastic performances… Jamie’s range as Curtis was great. Keith Robinson was really good (plus he was too cute – I wanted him to be my little brother)… and Beyonce… well, she did well too. Markedly better than her past performances, but definitely not worthy of a Golden Globe nomination (what were they thinking?) Having said that, she did do very well – she should be proud. She held her own - but not a patch on Jennifer. I hear she’s a bit upset at all the attention Jennifer’s getting – how very ‘Dreamgirls-y’! She did write a great song though ("Listen") but then we already know Beyonce can write a good song. The rest of the cast – Danny Glover, Sharon Leal etc was really good – good casting.
The choreography – Fatima Robinson nailed it. She nailed it! Totally reminiscent of the time period under reference, but also fresh and classy. Fantastic – one up for the MTV music-video generation. While Condon and his gang can’t take credit for the high lyrical quality of the wonderful songs (although some great new songs were written for the film too), they were beautifully arranged and performed – very very good work – I must get the soundtrack. The sets and costumes – lovely – from the Dreams' costumes (the later ones – after they had made some money) to the black suit Beyonce had on when she went to see hubby – so 70s (with all the ruffles) yet so contemporary.
But the directing, editing and cinematography deserve honours too. So lovingly done… this film was just beautifully shot. So many great examples – the use of lighting and shadow in ‘And I am Telling You…’, the way they shot the first Jimmy Early song sequences – heck, the way they shot all the song sequences. So seamless and beautiful, so well-paced – courtesy of Condon’s genius script. The script is dramatic, exciting but also hilarious, really nicely done by someone who obviously truly loves the stage musical. I’m trying to think of something to fault this movie on, but I can’t – maybe the next time I see it, I’ll be able to nitpick (actually, no I won’t) – but for now I’m just loving it.
And I’m loving Jennifer Hudson – what a story… first of all, she accomplished the feat of trimming down from a size 22 to a 12 before auditioning for American Idol. While on AI, despite winning the admiration of veteran musicians like Sir Elton John, she got voted off by America (I remember her saying ‘well, if America don’t like me, what can I do about it?’ or something like that, when the results were announced). Instead of disappearing into oblivion like all the other AI rejects, she got this role… and she absolutely KILLED it!! Amazing… talk about the original Dreamgirl. And now Clive whathisname (Clive Davis?) is falling over himself to give her a record deal (after turning her down a couple of years ago). How hotttt is that? Of course, there’s the usual crowd of naysayers saying that Jennifer will fall prey to the so called ‘curse of Effie White’ – i.e. that, like Jennifer Holliday, she will always be seen as Effie White and nothing more. To that I say, whatever!! (I know, how very eloquent of me) Well, I predict that this Jennifer has more up her sleeve… and I’m rooting for her.
Obviously, I think Dreamgirls is a great production – I think I may have to see it again before it leaves the cinemas – and it’s definitely going in my DVD collection when the DVD comes out. What more can I say? I just loved it.
I know this was a loooong review - but bear with me, it's not everyday I see a movie I can really rave about!