Only The Beginning (or) A Tale of Two Jennifers

Back on Sunday, April 3, 1983 I sat in the darkness of the Shubert Theatre in Century City and was blown away by a 23 year old newcomer, Jennifer Holliday, as she sung what became her signature song “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” (click here for the Tony awards performance; here’s a concert performance).

Today, Monday, December 25, 2006 — 25 years after the original Dreamgirls was on Broadway, I sat in a darkened theatre and was blown away another newcomer, Jennifer Hudson, who we last saw as a runner-up on American Idol, echoing the talent of Jennifer Holliday in her performance as Effie White.

As you likely figured out by now, our annual Christmas movie was Dreamgirls (The Movie), the long-awaited movie version of the 1981 Tony-award winning musical, Dreamgirls (Book and Lyrics by Ton Eyen, Music by Henry Krieger). For those not familiar with the story, Dreamgirls roughly tells the story of The Supremes (I say roughly because although there are some real life basis for the characters, some characters are amalgams and some have different outcomes). Dreamgirls tells the story of a girl singing group, The Dreamettes, consisting of Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles [Diana Ross]); Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose [Mary Wilson]), and Effie White (Jennifer Hudson [Florence Ballard]). Although Effie was the original lead of the group, they started to hit it big when their manager, Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx [a Barry Gordy Jr. amalgam]arranged for them to sing backup to James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy [a mix of a number of Motown artists, including Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and James Brown]. Throughout all of this, writing the songs, is C.C. White (Keith Robinson [likely representing Holland-Dozier-Holland]). As the “Dreamettes” stars start to rise, Early’s star starts to fall, and Curtis sends the now renamed “Dreams” out on their own. In doing this, he moves Deena to the lead singer, and shuts aside Effie, eventually casting her away and replacing her with Michelle Morris (Sharon Leal [Cindy Birdsong]). The success of Deena Jones and the Dreams [Diana Ross and the Supremes] continues, while Effie’s life continues to sink. Finally, as with all ebbs and flows, the Dreams reach their zenith while Effie reaches her nadir. CC leaves the “Rainbow Records” [Motown] fold, and returns to Effie with the song that only she can sing. But Curtis steals the song; Deena finds out and leaves him and the Dreams. The movie ends with the final performance of the four Dreams, including Effie. [Alas, this isn’t real life, for things weren’t that lucky for Florence Ballard, who started the Supremes.]

So what did I think of the movie. Wow.

First, I thought the casting and the performances were excellent. I was particularly taken by Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy in their roles, although Jamie Foxx turned in a remarkable performance as well, especially in the last scene where he realizes that Magic, Effie’s daughter, is his daughter. I think there are some strong Oscar contending performances in this. But none of the cast were bad or miscast. They were all exceptionally strong actors, singers, and dancers. I’ll note that the casting even gave a nod to the original musical in the casting of Loretta Devine as a jazz singer, as well as Hinton Battle as an aide to Curtis.

As for the music. Much of it came from the stage version (although some songs were cut), and there were new songs added for the stage. I thought the music was strong, and I couldn’t tell what was old and what was new, except for a few portions where dialogue was sung. Sung dialogue was a characteristic of the stage musical, and most of it was removed for the film, making the few places where it did occur stand out. But I’m probably the only one who noticed. The musical styling was very cinematic — this works well for a show that mostly takes place on the stage, so situational songs (which are fine on the stage but seem off in movies) were few.

As for the cinematography: I found it stunning. One problem that reviewers have with movie musicals is when they are, essentially, filmed versions of the stage show. This is what doomed the excellent movie musicals Rent and The Producers, whereas Chicago was a success. In this film, the cinematography was used to best advantage, with framing shots, rotating steadicams, and the general approach adding to the story (except for the long rotating steadicam sequence during “We Are Family”, which left me dizzy). I should also note the construction of the end credits, which actually showed the contributions of each person credited. Well done, very well done.

Credit should also go to the director, Bill Condon, for his choices. The location shots, the design, the layout, the angles… the entire approach to the production is remarkable.

I agree with the hype that this movie is an Oscar contender: there were powerful performances, and one could really see the power of the acting.

I should note that the success of the movie, however, is bittersweet. First, and formost, in almost an echoing of what happened in the movie, the original Effie White, Jennifer Holliday, has been shunted aside by the movie publicity machine. After her success at age 21 in Dreamgirls, she faced a suicide attempt at 30. Bankruptcy. Two failed marriages. Bouts with depression. She has dropped 200 lbs, but hasn’t seen her career come back. Now, with the publicity machine of the movie, she’s been shunted aside again. Her voice is used in the film’s trailers… but she isn’t credited. She was never approached about the movie or publicity. She was “uninvited” to the film’s premiere at the Ziegfeld Theatre. Some speculate that the filmmakers fear that comparisons to Holliday may dull the glow surrounding the performance of Jennifer Hudson, the former “American Idol” contestant who plays Effie in the film. Some note that Holliday just is a hard person to work with. Whatever the case, the echoing in reality of what has happened before remains sad, but far too often the movie eclipses the stage version. I do hope that Holliday’s voice remains strong, and she reemerges as the talent she is.

The second sad point is the fact that, on the day the movie opened in wide release, the world lost the legendary R&B singer James Brown, who created the foundation for funk and rap music, and in real life was an instrumental part of the events that formed the basis for this story.

May movies such as this teach us to treasure the performers amongst us, to not dismiss the talent that God blesses people with. As we enjoy the music, let us focus on the talent, and not the package. We do it far too often.

Happy holidays. I hope you have enjoyed reading my reviews this year as much as I have enjoyed researching and writing them.