WE'LL MAKE YOU HAPPY
Where does the time go? No sooner do I get one project tied up than a dozen others come down around my perfectly coiffed head, burying me up to the tops of my size six Capezio character tap shoes. It's very annoying. Pre-production work on my new film project, Flaming Desire, the musical remake of Die Hard has slowed over the usual and inevitable creative differences. Wardrobe presented me with a gown for the difficult escape by helicopter from the roof sequence that made me look like a refugee from Anatevka, not a glamorous international business icon. I tried it on, looked in the mirror and I could have sworn it was Lazar Wolf looking back.
While the film is at a low ebb, I am continuing to look at other opportunities to use my many talents. My publicist has suggested that I should join the current pack of junior celebs headed by Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. Normy and I thought this would be a marvelous idea so we headed off to Chateau Marmont where we settled ourselves into the bar. We didn't have long to wait before Britney came in with a couple of her young lady friends. I squealed Britney as loud as I could and hustled my way across the room, but one of my taps caught on the edge of an ill-placed throw rug and I fell straight into the arms of a rather burly security guard. By the time I recovered, she had left the building. The paparazzi photograph shot up my skirt that landed on Page Six was not flattering.
Normy and I decided not to wait for Lindsay Lohan to make an appearance and instead headed for the Cineplex where we caught a showing of Dreamgirls starring Jamie Foxx, Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy. I had thoroughly enjoyed the stage production some years ago (and had a few meetings with Michael Bennett over starring in a film version at that time. Our concept was that all three of the Dreams, Effie, Deena and Lorell were aspects of the same personality and that I should play all three roles). Alas, that project never came to fruition and we have all had to wait for several decades for a suitable film to arrive.
The wait has been worth it. Writer/director Bill Condon, who adapted Chicago to film several years ago with director Rob Marshall, has again managed to find a way to present musical material to a post modern audience so that they will find it engaging and entertaining rather than quaint and stilted. After the relative failures of Rent, The Phantom of the Opera and The Producers as films, I was relieved to find that my chosen genre is still capable of being an exhilarating experience in the correct hands.
Dreamgirls is loosely based on the rise of The Supremes and Motown records during the 60s and early 70s, as it chronicles the lives and loves of three young women from naive girls from the wrong side of the Detroit tracks to international singing superstars. The three are Effie (Jennifer Hudson), a tempermental diva with a powerhouse voice and overly zaftig figure, Deena (Beyonce Knowles), a somewhat timid beauty and Lorell (Anika Noni Rose), the spitfire comic relief. One evening, they appear at an amateur night talent competition. Would be impresario Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx) catches their act and recognizes that they will be his way into the music business. He arranges them to sing back-up for established star James 'Thunder' Early (Eddie Murphy), engages Effie's brother C.C. (Keith Robinson) to help him make a new kind of musical sound and soon the Dreams are born, but not without cost to all of the characters, especially Effie who is shunted aside as both lead singer and lover by Curtis in favor of Deena who has a more appealing look and blander voice. Bitter fights and recriminations ensue but there's eventually an uplifting reconciliation or two in the final reel.
Henry Krieger's original Broadway score, a pastiche of Motown and midcentury soul/R&B numbers, is augmented by a few new tunes by the composer to keep the movie flowing. Condon, as director, has wisely recognized the difference between stage and film musical. A stage musical needs pauses to let an audience reflect and digest the emotional moment. Film musicals must constantly move forward. Any musical moment that does not further plot or character development is wasted and a modern audience's attention span won't stand for it. Condon has taken and shaped the original material with judicious trims and interpolations into a constantly moving texture of music and image that carries us through the ten years of the plot, allowing us to interact with the leading characters, but also to reflect on the greater changes occuring in American society with the final ascendancy of African-American culture to full recognition.
The original Broadway production, long renowned for its constantly moving cinematic staging was set in a neverland of neon lights and moving pillars. The film is set in an all too real Detroit and Hollywood with costumes (Sharen Davis) and production design (John Myhre) recreating the world of Motown (here called Rainbow Records) in full detail. To get us into this world, the film uses music only in concert sequences for the first fifteen or twenty minutes. Gradually, characters start to sing off-stage about their lives and we are ready for this due to the assured direction of Condon who brings us into traditional musical territory slowly and deftly, without any of the usual 'that's so unreal' that prevents the suspension of disbelief with musicals.
Performances are excellent all the way around. Beyonce is gorgeously photographed and made up and exquisitely lovely to look at. If she's not the greatest of dramatic actresses, the script doesn't make too many demands on her. The revelation and emotional heart of the story belong to Jennifer Hudson, the former American Idol finalist who brings heft, sass, and a huge belt to Effie. The core moment of the story, her 'And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going' thrills in the film, in similar ways to Jennifer Holliday's original stage performance. Jamie Foxx is appropriately slimy as Curtis and Keith Robinson shines in the underwritten part of C.C. Eddie Murphy, who could very easily have fallen into his old schtick, actually delivers a decent dramatic performance as the star on the skids, quite restrained in the second half of the film as his career and his life collapse around him.
Dreamgirls is hugely entertaining, exceedingly well crafted, and definitely worth the $8.00 at the cineplex in a town near you.
Multiple wigs. Sequin dresses. Gratuitous Jackson 5 reference. Oversize album covers. Seedy club. Alley strutting. Vintage telephones. Vintage microphones. Vintage radios. Gratuitous Lady Sings the Blues reference.