I’m staying, I’m staying,
And you, and you, and you, you’re gonna love me.
Ooh, you’re gonna love me.
–Effie (Jennifer Hudson), “And I Am Telling You”
Dreamgirls is a big, boomy musical, energetic and well-crafted. The latest in a series of Broadway shows translated to the big screen just in time for Oscar nominations, it benefits from casting actual singers (as opposed to actors who carry tunes) and Beyoncé Knowles’ most finely tuned film performance to date (even granting the faintness of this praise). More compellingly, it takes on a substantive subject, pervasive U.S. racism in the 1960s and ’70s. And yet, the movie is both troubled and troubling, a collection of splashy parts that don’t cohere, a series of gestures rather than a convincing whole.
Directed by Bill Condon, who wrote the screenplay for the mostly silly Chicago, Dreamgirls is based on a show that opened in 1981 and famously borrows from the real-life saga of the Supremes (here the group is called the Dreamettes, then the Dreams). Naïve young women are manipulated by scheming, ambitious men, and only late in their lives realize their original friendship was indeed, more important to their self-images than their professional success. It’s a standard storyline, perhaps especially for a U.S. musical, and yet this version offers a potentially significant backdrop: the girls struggle not only with individual men but also with systems of power that limit their potentials.
The decidedly uneven score embraces the music of its moment, from soul to Motown to pop to disco, all filtered through Broadway, which means it’s all too watery and white. But the plot raises questions about the music’s marketing and its makers’ exploitation (consumers here remain mostly invisible, except as auditorium crowds). As the girls sing their hearts out, so desperate to “make it,” they are repeatedly faced with compromises shaped by race prejudice and misogyny.
“I’m looking for something, baby,” the film’s first lyrics insist, sung by a girl group at a 1962 Detroit talent contest. “Something that’ll give me a rise.” And so you’re prepared and instructed to look as well. As Dreamgirls opens, the Dreamettes — Deena (Beyoncé Knowles), Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose), and lead singer Effie (famously rejected American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson) — lose the contest to become “Star of Tomorrow.” But their first performance, “Move” (with prophetic lyrics: “You are so horribly Satanic, / The way you lead me around”), is brilliant. And so they’re offered what seems a once-in-a-lifetime chance to sing back-up for the famous James-Brownish soul man Jimmy Early (Eddie Murphy). His wily manager Curtis (Jamie Foxx), a character drawn from Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, sees in the girl group a chance to expand and extend Jimmy’s currently fading appeal.
Soon the girls are riding Jimmy’s bus, their matching costumes and dance moves supporting his tentative crossover into more mainstream pop, that is, a white consumer base. While Jimmy imagines himself all sexed up and beguiling (seducing Lorelle), Curtis sees the act’s potential to get off the chitlin circuit and play white venues, even TV. Though he’s romancing Effie and appreciates her phenomenal talent, when Curtis advises the girls to break off from Jimmy, he also suggests that Deena take over as lead singer. Recalling the seismic shift in the Supremes when Diana Ross took the lead from Florence Ballard, Curtis’ decision changes everything: the best girlfriends find they’re competing not only for vocals, but also for Curtis.
(Left to right) Anika Noni Rose as Lorrell, Beyonce Knowles as Deena and Jennifer Hudson as Effie.
His selection of Deena over Effie indicates his ambition and acute awareness of his markets. Deena is more “conventionally” beautiful (that is, whiter) than Effie, as well as less demanding, more willing to compromise in order to realize her own “dream” of stardom. The movie’s treatments of these very different women are both galling and mesmerizing, as is its consideration of racism with only occasional white speaking parts (smartly assuming the system’s devastation and insidiousness). As Deena is groomed for movie roles and showcases, she is made increasingly glamorous (Beyoncé is pretty fabulous here, posing for gigantic close-ups and withdrawing from her own performance at the same time, effectively embodying a difficult tension).
At the same time, Effie becomes increasingly “raw,” incarnating a certain sort of “blackness.” Kicked out of the group and rejected by Curtis, she begins wearing colorful, Aretha Franklin-style dresses and abandons the wigs for her natural hair. Playing small clubs and working with Jimmy’s ex-manager (Danny Glover), she crafts her own career, hoping to make her own crossover with a song written by her brother C.C. (Keith Robinson). She means to change the market rather than adapt to it, so that she and Deena seem to symbolize separate kinds of achievement in an industry that absorbs, manipulates, and spits back out all forms of artistry. New and old, black and white, masculine and feminine, raw and hyper-processed — all performances can be packaged, replicated, and turning profits, usually at the artists’ expense.
Even as Deena’s perfectly coiffed star rises, Effie’s insistent “blackness” limits her commercial appeal, and her story, reeling from joy to tragedy to triumph, exposes how such limits are a function of blatant and subtle forms of racism. Whether individuals navigate, internalize, or confront it, they are in some way affected. When Effie learns that Curtis is not only dropping her from the group but has been sleeping with Deena to boot, her stunning number, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” (with the poignant lyric, “You’re gonna love me”), speaks directly to the film’s most forceful themes. She declares her need and her defiance, and the show literally stops, articulating quite precisely white U.S. culture’s ongoing fear and love of blackness.
Hudson’s belty performance solicits audience cheers, but it also reveals the movie musical’s limits. Lacking liveness and devoted to close-ups even during performers’ project-to-the-back-row pieces, movie musicals are overstated by definition. Even beyond its clichéd story and familiar characters, Dreamgirls gets stuck at its most broadly representational level, exploiting even as it means to expose, repeating even as it might have offered something new, something that would give you a rise.