Magazine article The American Conservative

Drama Queens & Showstoppers

Magazine article The American Conservative

Drama Queens & Showstoppers

Article excerpt



Drama Queens & Showstoppers

BROADWAY MUSICAL composers can't seem to come up with catchy tunes anymore, so Hollywood has turned to singers' biopics, such as recent Oscar-winners "Walk the Line" (Johnny Cash) and "Ray" (Ray Charles), so audiences can still leave the theater humming the hits.

Unfortunately, musical career arcs generally lack fresh drama. The genre's standard plot sees the struggling young prodigy get a quick lesson in how to sell a song from a veteran Svengali, after which he ascends to superstardom during a montage. In Act II, the singer struggles with his "inner demons," which predictably turn out to be drugs or drink.

It doesn't help that filmmakers have been oddly averse to honesty about why we idolize outstanding singers. "Walk the Line," for example, implied that Cash became a legend because of the emotional trauma of his younger brother's death. Likewise, when Hollywood finally makes "The Shaquille O'Neal Story," we'll no doubt learn Shaq grew up to be a 7'1'' NBA center because his beloved pet dog got run over.

What made Cash unique, however, was that bass-baritone voice with which he would thrillingly rumble, "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash." Joaquin Phoenix, a fine actor but a mere baritone, couldn't match it.

In contrast, "Dreamgirls," the deservedly crowd-pleasing film version of the 1981 Broadway musical, demonstrates the storytelling advantages of making stuff up. A highly fictionalized account of Motown's Supremes (renamed the Dreams), it refreshingly puts conflicts over voices and looks at the center of this story of three Detroit high-school friends who become the biggest American pop group of the 1960s.

"Dreamgirls" adds operatic resonance to the real-life squabbles between Diana Ross and Florence Ballard over who would sing lead in the Supremes by assigning the Ballard character an Aretha Franklin-sized vocal talent, along with an Aretha-sized girth. To cross over to the white audience, however, the music mogul based on Motown's formidable Berry Gordy (Jamie Foxx of "Ray") promotes the thinner looking (and sounding) ingénue over the more authentically African-American powerhouse. (Ironically, the actual Diana was much darker than Flo, whose nickname was "Blondie.")

The film's producers made this Aretha conceit plausible by auditioning 783 singers before deciding upon Jennifer Hudson, a former "American Idol" contestant with overwhelming pipes and presence, whose rendition of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" tops even Jennifer Holliday's storied 1981 version. …

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