Magazine article The New Yorker

Best and Brightest; the Current Cinema

Magazine article The New Yorker

Best and Brightest; the Current Cinema

Article excerpt

Near the beginning of Bill Condon's movie adaptation of the musical "Dreamgirls," Jimmy Early (Eddie Murphy), a soul singer loosely based on James Brown, meets his three new backup singers: Effie (Jennifer Hudson), Deena (Beyonce Knowles), and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose). Jimmy, eager to score with all of them, gets down on his knees in mock submission. "Exactly what would you like Jimmy to do for you?," he asks. The youngest, Lorrell, giggling with excitement, says, "You could teach us the song." Moving to a piano backstage, Jimmy begins "Fake Your Way to the Top," one of the many fast-boiling numbers that the composer Henry Krieger and the lyricist Tom Eyen wrote for the original show, which was directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett and opened on Broadway twenty-five years ago this month. As Eddie Murphy begins singing, a pianist takes his seat, and Murphy walks in front of the instrument and cues each of the girls to sing the decorative backup line, "round and round"--Anika Noni Rose in her giddy high soprano, Beyonce Knowles in a softer, tamer style, and Jennifer Hudson in a throaty, deep mezzo that leaps into an exultant riff. Murphy whirls around, and suddenly, without any transition, he's onstage, before an audience, doing the song with the three girls singing nearby.

The sigh you will hear across the country in the next few weeks is the sound of a gratified audience: a great movie musical has been made at last. For me, and perhaps for many others, the Oscar-winning "Chicago," with its overwrought heave and strain, its dancing bodies broken into piston-thrust fragments, wasn't even close to the real thing. "Dreamgirls" is a singing, not a dancing, musical, so Condon, who wrote "Chicago" (and who directed "Gods and Monsters" and "Kinsey") is never tempted to break bodies into pieces. In any case, we can tell from the easy fluency of the movie that his basic urge is to merge and join things, not to separate them. Again and again, he lets a declaration of love, an argument, a music-business event flow directly into the next moment, and then into the next, in an exhilarating organic structure with liquid joints. "Dreamgirls" is a barely disguised account of Berry Gordy and the rise of the Supremes; it features some brief, crisply written expository passages and several photo-montage sequences that detail the emergence of black artists as a major commercial force in American music of the nineteen-sixties--all seen against a background of the Detroit riots and the civil-rights movement. But, apart from these episodes, just about everything is sung, and, in this movie, the songs aren't merely commentary on the narrative and the personal conflicts; they are the narrative and the drama--a rousing success story that is also (though we don't realize it right away) a parallel story of failure.

When we first see Curtis Taylor, Jr. (the Berry Gordy character, played by Jamie Foxx), he's a hustler with pomaded hair and a roving eye who's lounging backstage at a talent show. Quickly, he aces out an aging manager (Danny Glover) and takes command of the three girls, their songwriter, C.C. (Keith Robinson), and Jimmy, too. Curtis softens and homogenizes the girls' sound, dresses them in elaborate wigs, white satin dresses with trumpet hems, and elbow-length gloves, and creates a sparkling landscape of light around them. He succeeds in leading them out of the wilderness of R. & B. and into the promised land of the pop charts. But one of the girls doesn't fit--the beautiful but oversized Effie, the lead singer with a big voice and a bigger mouth. When Curtis replaces her as the lead with the demure Deena, she explodes, and the movie reaches a sustained peak with two long, interlocked numbers: "It's All Over," in which Effie holds out against no fewer than four characters, singly and in pairs, the group breaking apart and reforming again and again; and then the song that stopped the show on Broadway, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," performed by Effie alone. …

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