Steppin’ to the Bad Side
by Danielle McCarthy

Dir. Bill Condon, U.S., Dreamworks

The first exhibit you encounter at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis, Tennessee, is an authentic 1906 African Methodist Episcopal church, dismantled from the Duncan, Mississippi town where it stood for nearly a hundred years and reconstructed within the multi-million dollar museum as a living embodiment of the roots of American music—soul, blues, rhythm & blues, and rock ‘n’ roll. Walking in you’re struck by the sounds of gospel, singing, clapping, and stomping, and you can almost feel the floors shake with the music—except that you’re in an icy, air-conditioned room with track lighting dramatically cast over the stripped-down structure. A rope prohibits you from actually entering the church, leaving you to peer through the windows into its now empty rooms. I was left with a similar feeling after watching Bill Condon’s screen adaptation of the Tony-winning 1981 Broadway show Dreamgirls, an amusement park version of R&B, stripped of the soul one would need to truly understand it.

More Mariah than Motown, Dreamgirls is the thinly veiled story of the Supremes with bits of the histories of Stax and the “Chitlin’ Circuit” thrown in for some added street cred. But make no mistake: Dreamgirls bears little relation to anything Motown or Stax ever recorded; it’s full-on Broadway, with enough showtunes, dancing, and breaking into song mid-conversation to fill the otherwise superficial gloss on the assimilation of black music into mainstream pop culture. Super-diva Beyonce Knowles as Deena Jones is the blank canvas to hang vague Diana Ross impersonations on, breakout star Jennifer Hudson plays the gospel-voiced and full-figured Effie White, and Anika Noni Rose is the third, least flashy member of trio, Lorrell Robinson. Jamie Foxx “steps to the bad side” as the budding music mogul/car salesman Curtis Taylor Jr., who discovers the Dreamettes and turns them into the Dreams, romancing Effie then replacing her with the sleeker Deena in his push to make them stars. It’s widely assumed that Foxx’s character is based on Berry Gordy, the man who started Motown, but Curtis is so lacking in depth and is so villainous beyond reason that he comes across as more of a wet blanket than a bad guy—it doesn’t help that Foxx never really explores Taylor’s motivations for his bad behavior beyond a desire to have the ear of white audiences, the implications of which would have been interesting to further delve into.

In an attempt at cultural significance, this adaptation of Dreamgirls is chock full of nostalgia-laden, old-fashioned montages of the cultural and historical events of the Sixties and Seventies; references to Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr. are awkwardly shoehorned into the narrative. The characters have also been tweaked so they bear more resemblance to the real people they were based on: every album cover for the Dreams was cribbed from actual album covers of the Supremes; the location is changed from Chicago to Detroit, the hometown of the Supremes and Motown; and throughout the film, characters mimic the look and life stories of everyone from Marvin Gaye to James Brown to Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson (of the Supremes). In fact at various times, James “Thunder” Early (played by a fully committed Eddie Murphy) appears to be a direct counterpart to Brown with his trademark sculptured coif; yet later he is clearly modeled on Gaye, as the film borrows his knit cap and “message” songs. While these easily recognizable signifiers flatter the audience and provide historical reference points for the narrative, in the end Condon draws too close a correlation to the real-life counterparts, too weighty a backdrop for such a trifle.

Condon fills the screen with lots of flashy Sixties iconography—filtered through an Eighties sensibility and transformed into an American Idol-style parade of soulless showstoppers. Fittingly, the film’s emotional center, the vocally talented Jennifer Hudson, was famously “voted” off that very show. Dreamgirls mimics Idol’s star factory by casting Hudson as the underdog who rises to stardom, enticing the millions of Idol fans to their local multiplex (it’s no surprise the film has opened right before the debut of season six). American Idol started off as something of a joke and over six years has transformed itself into America’s number one show, as well as a legitimate starmaking machine—but with far too heavy emphasis on the idol part of the equation. Dreamgirls places the cultural zeitgeist of Idol mania in its proper historical context. But the effect is the same. The music is lost in the frenzy for stardom. While Dreamgirls criticizes the effect of “selling out” on the music and the artists, in the end, the film is its own sell-out: Idol pre-dux.

The only truly transformative moment in the film (musically speaking) is Hudson’s blow-the-roof-off performance of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Her vulnerability and desperation convey what is best about music—its ability to make emotions relatable and universal. Indeed, as Effie sings her heart out the other actors fade away, and she is left surrounded by a wall of mirrors, reflecting her heartbreak with our own. In comparison, Murphy’s James “Thunder” Early, while believable as a Marvin Gaye / James Brown soul singer, is an imitation, even at the actor’s wild and funkiest, and furthermore, one that inadvertently dishonors those legends and exploits their cultural contribution. Like the film, it’s a shameless mining of life stories to truss up a basic showbiz premise of discovery, success, disillusionment, and rebirth.

And yes, the audience I saw Dreamgirls with clapped repeatedly throughout, which feels more indicative of our culture’s obsession with competition than it does with the film’s artistic accomplishments—Hudson often seems to be competing in the Olympics of vocal acrobatics. It’s true the contestants on American Idol can sing, but it’s a clinical, abbreviated style, performing second-rate renditions of classic songs, the cultural significance of which is watered down in a crass pursuit of talent by association. Already, Hollywood has ruined several dozen of my favorite R&B songs: The impact of the entire Motown and Stax catalogs has already been muted through overuse in films, trailers, and to sell financial advice or toilet bowl cleaners—Dreamgirls only further mimics with slick studio polish, just one more layer of removal. (If one wants to see the real story behind Motown specifically, the superb documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown leaves behind the divas and egos that Dreamgirls champions for the mostly forgotten musicians who wrote the hit songs.)

There is a great story somewhere in the muck of Dreamgirls. In its appropriation of black pop music it almost automatically endears itself to audiences (like me, and I wanted to love this film) that have been touched by the songs of the Supremes or Marvin Gaye or the late James Brown, whose recent death underscored how significant he was to the black community. But once the curtain falls and the clapping ceases, I was left with an underwhelming sensation. Fans will argue that the film should get a free pass because of its Broadway origins, and that it was merely inspired by the era. But the music, the culture and the people deserve a better film than this. And as much as Dreamgirls wants us to believe that “all you have to do is dream,” it would take more than dreams to make me a believer.