The life of a wedding DJ is not easy, as I learned in my short and inglorious stab at that profession some years ago. It is not easy to please at the same time the boomer wanting The Eagles, the grandma wanting Glen Miller, and the sullen teen demanding Ozzie, especially when they’re all drunk. But there is a trick to the trade — it’s called Motown, and everybody likes it.
Everybody, that is, except the producers of “Dreamgirls,” the movie based on the 1980s Broadway musical which was itself based loosely on Tamla-Motown label superstars The Supremes. It seems pretty counterintuitive to make a movie about a Motown group and not include heaping servings of that much-loved sound, but that is exactly what director Bill Condon (“Gods and Monsters”) has done here. After a few stabs at establishing a “period feel” with songs that sound pretty much like that sunny Detroit sound of the mid-’60s, Condon heads full tilt into the realm of Broadway show tunes — slick, operatic R&B bombast that owes little to the simpler, poppier stylings of Motown.
The wedding DJ in me knows, as sure as the sun rises in the morning, that you can play “Baby Love” and watch all sorts of people who probably haven’t shaken their booties since Gerald Ford was president get up and move. The wedding DJ in me also knows that playing the “Dreamgirls” soundtrack would be a one-way ticket to an evening without tips. Yes, I know the Academy has nominated three, count ‘em, three songs from “Dreamgirls” for an Oscar. But don’t forget, these are the same people who routinely nominate people like composer Hans Zimmer, who writes orchestration that makes you want to run to a pachinko parlor for a bit of peace and quiet.
I could go on about the music in “Dreamgirls” until I’m blue in the face — much like actress and former “American Idol” Jennifer Hudson after she gets through the bombastic, gut-busting number “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” — but then I would be neglecting to jump up and down on its uninvolving story, its one-dimensional characters, its confused racial politics, and, oh, did I mention the music?
The film’s story begins in the early ’60s, when slick auto salesman Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) decides to break into the music business by managing an aspiring girl-group. Foxx’s character is defined by the tiny little ‘stache clinging to his upper lip, which signals he’s an operator. For the next two hours, we get no further insight into the man’s character. He remains nothing more than a nose affixed to the scent of commercial success, constantly seeking to “whiten up” his black performers’ sound in order to crossover to mainstream radio play and real hits. (As if white folk didn’t also often water down their sound to reach wider audiences; ever hear of The Monkees?)
His proteges are Deena Jones and The Dreams, and if that sounds like Diana Ross and The Supremes, well, the similarity is intentional. The Dreams, consisting of Effie White, Lorrell Robinson, and Deena Jones (played by Hudson, Anika Noni Rose, and Beyonce Knowles), start off as backup singers to the flamboyant soul star, James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy in James Brown mode), before moving on to become artists carefully groomed by their slick manager, Curtis.
The film makes some attempts to show how managers — the people who can engineer an artist’s success — can also be a stifling influence creatively, in their insistence that they alone know what the market wants. In “Dreamgirls” we repeatedly see Curtis stifle impassioned recordings by his artists, choosing to release instead commercially safer material. While this does have some basis in musical history — Motown owner Barry Gordy notoriously refused to release Marvin Gaye’s version of “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You” — it’s belied by the many fresh, innovative recordings that Motown did release in the ’60s.
Having set up this Faustian bargain between Curtis and his artists, the film employs it as the only thing that drives the plot over two long hours. Curtis pushes Effie, the band’s chunkier, brassier lead vocalist, out of the limelight, while putting the slender, thinner-voiced Deena center-stage. Effie has an attitude about it, and eventually annoys everybody enough until she’s kicked out of the band. The viewer may well sympathize with her bandmates, but the filmmakers think we’re supposed to feel sorry for this obnoxious egotist who seems to think she’s owed a career as a pop star.
But while Curtis is a sleazebag and Effie is loud, Deena is a blank, a character who barely even exists except to look good in sequined gowns. The final-reel rebellion by Deena against the domineering Curtis is entirely unconvincing.
And when everyone breaks into song to express their feelings, the effect is more like a “South Park” parody of contemporary, autopilot R&B ballads, with songs like “Family” and “I Am Changing” featuring stupefyingly facile lyrics and phrasing. The line in the sand is clearly crossed, though, with Jennifer Hudson’s “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” a song even longer than its awkward title. Hudson bellows away until she’s about to pop a lung in a performance that has more in common with endurance sports than music. Many critics have singled this out as the best moment in the entire movie; myself, I don’t equate loudness with goodness, and prefer singers who can caress a lyric, not bludgeon it.
You may find yourself believing the pre-Oscar hype more than this review, and decide to give “Dreamgirls” a try. If you like contemporary Broadway, you may even enjoy it. But don’t say I didn’t warn you — it ain’t over till the fat lady sings.