Saturday, December 30, 2006


Soul Food...from a Can

By Josh R
The history of African-American recording artists in this country is one with a turning point. In the late 1950s, upstart producer Berry Gordy founded Motown Records, the specific mission of which was to bring Rhythm & Blues out of the realm of ethnic specialty and into the mainstream of American culture. From the get-go, it was an uphill battle. While there had been African-American R&B artists with some crossover appeal, notably Fats Domino and Little Richard, white audiences were, at best, wary of the rumblings coming out of Detroit. Rude, rough, racy and unapologetically confrontational, R&B was a tough sell for that segment of the population that wasn’t quite ready to accept any show, overt or otherwise, of African-American power, strength and defiance. Well-heeled suburbanites who happened into Harlem’s Apollo Theater, that inner-city musical cathedral where blues and gospel merged with the insistent beat of rock n’ roll, might well find themselves scuttling towards the exit doors in fits of apoplexy ... and it’s not hard to imagine them double-bolting their own front doors after staggering home to New Rochelle.

When Domino’s first crossover hit, “Ain’t That a Shame,” was infamously covered by squeaky-clean Pat Boone — whose easy-listening style made The Beach Boys look like a metal band — the cover version hit No. 1 on the pop charts, eclipsing the success of the Domino original. Since the Boone track received much wider radio airplay in segregated areas, Gordy understood that a change was needed if black artists had any hope of getting their sound into the mainstream — without seeing it plundered and cannibalized by the Pat Boones of the world, who would ultimately reap the rewards of other people’s labors. A canny appraiser of what white audiences were ready to accept, Gordy deliberately steered R&B away from its boisterous origins, cultivating a milder, softer sound that was more patently listener-friendly. Thus, the raucous, hair-raising vocal stylings of Little Richard were jettisoned in favor of the smooth, silky falsetto of Smokey Robinson, Gordy’s first top attraction in what would soon prove to be an unprecedented stable of talents. It was the most nonthreatening approach he could have taken, and it proved to be a lucrative one — while white audiences of the early 1960s weren’t necessarily prepared for electric firebrands in the James Brown and Tina Turner mold, they were more than happy for the spectacle of smiling black men sweetly harmonizing about having “sunshine on a cloudy day.” Whatever you happen to think of the Motown sound as refined and perfected by Berry Gordy — and I, for one, happen to love it — it must be acknowledged that it was a sanitized, smoothed-over (if not de-fanged) version of how R&B was originally conceived.

This is essentially true of the new film Dreamgirls, based on the wildly successful Broadway musical of the 1980s and brought to the screen by writer-director Bill Condon. Not-so-loosely based on the saga of The Supremes, the trio of singers molded by Gordy into the most influential girl group of all time, the film looks and sounds like a reasonably fair approximation of the Motown style. But looking and sounding the part is only half the battle, and Condon’s effort ultimately feels less like a genuine reflection of the hardscrabble African-American experience in America (and the personalities who served as its artistic spokesmen) than a nice, safe little film pitched directly at a suburban white audience. The result feels cautious, and somewhat on the bland side — the cinematic equivalent of the kind of mass-marketed soul food that comes out of a can. To be fair, this is R&B filtered through the more conciliatory sensibility of Broadway ... nobody expected Hustle & Flow, but we weren’t expecting Mahogany either.

Dreamgirls follows the story of The Supremes closely in many respects. For anyone unfamiliar with the history, Gordy replaced the group’s original lead singer, the soulful Florence Ballard, with Diana Ross, the light-skinned beauty with the tiny little voice. While a consummate performer with star quality to spare, Ross — and I’m sure I’ll get tons of flack for saying this — was never much of a vocal powerhouse. Or really even much of a singer. If not for the science of electronic amplification, it’s doubtful she might ever have found herself on The Supremes roster, let alone serving as its lead vocalist. She was, however, a personality that could be packaged and marketed to the target audience, unencumbered by the kind of virtuosic skill that might overpower the mellow vibe Gordy was trying to create. It was about as far from Aretha Franklin as one could get — it was Nancy Sinatra and Brenda Lee. To be blunt — and go ahead, start firing off those outraged comments accusing me of stereotyping — she sang like a white girl. She also was romantically involved with Gordy at the time, which hardly hurt her cause. Ballard sank into obscurity and poverty, and died at the age of 32, a victim of depression and alcohol abuse.

The film provides its own thinly veiled version of The Supremes in The Dreamettes, a trio comprised of brass-lunged Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), demure Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles) and pert Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose). Ambitious would-be producer Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) lands them a gig singing backup for established star James Thunder Early (Eddie Murphy), a soul singer in the James Brown-Little Richard mold whose popularity doesn’t extend much beyond the R&B circuit. While romancing the dynamic Effie, whose unabashed confidence makes her full-bodied sensuality only that much more pronounced, Curtis doesn’t permit sentiment to distract him from the goal of using the Dreamettes as a vehicle for crossover success. He installs conventionally pretty, honey-voiced Deena as the new lead vocalist of the re-christened Dreams, demoting Effie to the role of backup vocalist. Her pride and vanity wounded by Curtis’ rejection of her talent, Effie’s inability to accept her diminished role leads to her eventual dismissal from the group. Unlike her real-life counterpart, Florence Ballard, she eventually rises up from the subsequent indignities of poverty to achieve success in her own right as a solo artist. Meanwhile, Deena (now Mrs. Curtis Taylor Jr.) has grown increasingly dissatisfied with the extent to which she has had to sublimate her own personality — conforming to the confining mold Curtis has pushed upon her — and tries to recover her own voice as both an artist and a woman.

It’s basically your standard rags-to-riches formula, enacted in predictably soapy fashion. The cast is undoubtedly talented, but with two notable exceptions, they fail to imbue their roles with much in the way of personality. Foxx comes across as neither dynamic nor ruthless enough to convince as the kind of upstart who could build an empire from scratch — his failure in the role is surprising given what a natural choice he would have seemed to be for the assignment (for a character who, in his own words, "step(s) up to the dark side," he seems pretty harmless). Beyonce looks and sounds like a dream, bringing a creamy luster to her vocals in what would also seem to be a tailor-made role — but she is similarly hamstrung by the soft-focus approach favored by Condon. Her character is supposed to be dewy-eyed and pliant, but without a sense of genuine drive behind the come-hither stage smile, her character arch isn’t particularly compelling. Her performance of the song “Listen,” written specifically for the film, shows off her vocal chops to great effect, and is the only moment in the film where her undeniable star quality is fully utilized. The talented Anika Noni Rose, who won a Tony for her buoyant performance in Caroline or Change?, by necessity comes across as a bit of a third wheel.

That leaves two performers — and they are, for all intensive purposes, the only thing which lends the film any measure of distinction. I watched Jennifer Hudson as a contestant on American Idol — while she impressed with her powerful vocals, there was nothing in her presence to indicate the potential for stardom. As Effie White, however, she commands full attention, at times offering enticing glimpses of what Dreamgirls could have been if brought to life with more conviction. I didn’t see the legendary stage version, but anyone with any familiarity with the show knows that its centerpiece has always been Effie’s raging anthem of defiance and denial, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Jennifer Holliday, the original Effie, sang the song with such force that it drew ovations the likes of which hadn’t been heard on Broadway since the age of Ethel Merman. Hudson puts the number over with a voracious theatricality and a shattering sense of urgency, all but blowing the lid off of a film which would otherwise seem to settle for tepid complacency when it should be going for the jugular. It’s the highlight of a performance that, while strong from start to finish, may not quite deserve the overweening praise that’s been heaped upon it by critics — truth be told, it’s only when she unleashes her spectacular voice upon the Henry Krieger-Tom Eyen score that the effect is truly riveting. If I remain unconvinced as to whether or not Hudson is, in fact, much of actress, let it be said that she is ideally suited to the demands of the role, and demonstrates a thorough understanding of the bruised feelings and fractious fits of temperament which make Effie a cyclone of a diva. Condon, who has been instrumental in drawing career-best performances from the likes of Ian McKellen, Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, doubtless deserve some of the credit.

It is Eddie Murphy, however, who provides Dreamgirls with its most effective acting performance. As the rough-living soul singer who can’t temper his electric style to suit the demands of the industry, he creates a touching study of a tortured soul struggling to bridge the gap between his natural assurance as a performer and his lack of wherewithal when the curtain comes down. Once the former has been cruelly taken away from (Curtis tries to shoe-horn him into the mold of an Al Green-style crooner), it isn’t long before his self-destructive impulses fully take hold. The advance word was that Murphy, along with everyone else in the film, would be swept away by the tidal wave of Hudson’s tour-de-force, but that proves not to be the case. Again, this is the sort of film that can only furnish good performances, as opposed to great ones, since there isn't much complexity of characterization — but Murphy certainly acquits himself well, and he and Hudson come closer than anyone else to suggesting the turbulence of the artistic temperament, and the restless, audacious spirit of a generation of musical pioneers.

The re-emergence of the movie musical has been a heartening development in recent years, even if the films themselves haven’t always provided much cause for cheer. Dreamgirls is far from a debacle on the level of The Phantom of the Opera, which was as overwrought as it was overproduced, or as disappointing as The Producers, which managed to be singularly uncinematic in Susan Stroman’s insistence on treating her original Broadway staging as if it were the Holy Grail. Hell, next to something like Babel, it could be called a masterpiece (will I ever stop razzing Babel? Not in this lifetime, kids). But Dreamgirls, while not a bad film, is sorely lacking in the one crucial ingredient by which a musical succeeds or fails — a sense of vitality. Bland and safe when it needed to be vibrant, it keeps its soul hidden under a bushel.

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It's nice that we agree on the worth of this film, at least, Josh! It was too slick and shallow and glossy, and Hudson's Oscar win was about as deserved as Sandra Bullock's - and then you had to go and squander your trenchant insights, and the goodwill you'd built up, by slamming 'Babel' (thankfully, those paragons of taste at the Academy disagreed with the likes of you and Edward on this issue - and how interestingly ironic that 'Babel' wins an Oscar for music and this film doesn't...) Will I ever stop defending 'Babel'? Well, who really knows...Sometimes it occurs to me that this lifetime is indeed too short to care about what critics think ;-)
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