Thursday, July 17, 2008

Dreamgirls (2006)

It's not that Jennifer Hudson isn't a fine singer, but after seeing Jennifer Holliday live in the stage production of Dream Girls more than 20 years ago, the celluloid rendition just cannot compare.

It's not the comparison of the two Jennifers' talents that makes the movie inferior to the play, so much as the fact that when a powerful actress is standing a few feet away from you belting her heart out, doubling over in pain, rejection, lost pride and crippled self-esteem, the emotion I felt in response simply cannot be recreated by a two-dimensional medium. Maybe, if I could see Hudson performing live, she would move me in the same way Holliday did. Maybe not.

Watching Hudson, I felt myself thinking "nice performance" much more often than I connected with Effie White's plight. Having grown up in Detroit and the legend of the Supremes and remembering how all the Motown stars returned for Florence Ballard's funeral, this rags to riches to rags (for Florence, anyway) story always resonated with me. Thus, the movie was inherently engaging. I just was never spurred to join in the Oscar buzz that surrounded Hudson.

Similarly, while Beyonce Knowles, Danny Glover and Jamie Foxx were serviceable in their roles, they brought nothing to the film that lingered with me beyond the closing credits. By contrast, I found Eddie Murphy's James "Thunder" Early a revelation.

I don't even remember the role from the Broadway production, but I won't soon forget the character, as brought to life by Murphy. James Brown married to Marvin Gaye, with a dash of Murphy's comic timing thrown in for good measure, Jimmy stole every scene he was in. And I'm Telling You' I'm Not Going got the applause in my theater, but Jimmy's Rap won the standing ovation in my heart.

I was still laughing over the lyric, "I like Johnny Mathis, but I can't do that stuff . . ." when Jimmy's performance went from cocky attitude and humor to humiliation. Murphy took me on a roller coaster thrill ride, up , then down with a stomach-wrenching plunge. One minute I was shaking my head at Jimmy's swagger, the next I felt awkward, embarassed, wanting to back out of the room quickly, before I saw the icon completely disgraced.

With artful dexterity, Murphy made Jimmy obnoxious and vulnerable; callous, yet sincere at the same time, a complex performance that Jamie Foxx never really attained as Curtis Taylor, Jr. (the Berry Gordyesque) character.

As for, Beyonce, the script probably did her a disservice, by making Deena the Diva with a heart of gold. If the character had had more of an edge, perhaps Knowles would have had more to work with. Conniving can be more interesting than kind. This is especially true when the character is modeled after a real-life person whom the world knows to have been quite the vixen (even viper) in her day. Deena the victim was no fun and, worse, rang false and artificial.

In all, Dreamgirls was entertaining, but probably more so for those less familiar with the play and/or the real life drama that inspired it.

Jimmy want, Jimmy want, Jimmy want more . . .

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