Tuesday, January 23, 2007

An impossible dream

After this morning's announcement of the 2006 Academy Award nominees, I keep reading headlines all over the internet about Dreamgirls being "snubbed." To begin, having 8 nominations is definitely not a snub. Not getting a nod for Best Picture, while it may seem like an oversight to exclude Dreamgirls from the top honors category, I have a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why that is.

Dreamgirls is not that good of a good musical.

Dreamgirls is not a bad movie by any means. It is technically very well made. Art direction. Costumes. Editing. Sound. All good. The acting? All good. (Though I am not at all suprised that Beyonce was left out of the acting categories, because she was the weakest link in Dreamgirls by a long shot.) So how does Dreamgirls not deserve to be included in the top spot?

First of all, I'm very disappointed that this came from Bill Condon, the writer of Gods & Monsters (incredible) and Chicago (basically the best modern movie musical). The script (and maybe this is something I'm missing having not seen the stage version) is a bit lacking, as is the music. Which is really odd, coming from a musical that is, in fact, about a musical group.

After I saw it, I was entertained, but not wowed. And I was not promised entertainment. I was promised kick-in-the-crotch, spit-on-your-neck fantastic. That's what I got out of Chicago, and I expected it out of Dreamgirls. Why were my expectations so high? Let's put it this way: I actually hate Chicago. It's a terrible play with no point that is lucky enough to have been choreographed by Bob Fosse and has a great score by Kander and Ebb. It was also very lucky to have, when it debuted on Broadway, leading ladies like Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon (who I secretly want to be). These are all things that made Chicago stand out, because the story on stage certainly couldn't have done that alone, as its real killer-diller Velma Kelly also knows.

I expected Dreamgirls to be great, even if it was a lackluster stage show (which I again reiterate that I do not know enough about to say, as my only previous experience with Dreamgirls is when Ellen sings the role of Effie White in the film Camp), because Bill Condon took a piss-poor story like that of Chicago and made it about something. He turned a fluffy vaudeville revue into a powerhouse movie musical about the power and influence of the media. I don't know how Condon did this, but he did. I just wish he could have infused the same life into Dreamgirls, providing it with Chicago's perfect blanace of story and song.

I think that imbalance of story and song is one reason, though, why people really like Dreamgirls. People who don't like musicals like Dreamgirls. It's more a concert than a musical, really. Or a movie about music, at best. 90% of the songs are production numbers--things that are meant for entertainment, for performance, rather than things that move the plot. Off the top of my head, I can think of only 3 songs that move the plot, and 2 of them are marginal: "And I'm Tellin' You I'm Not Goin'," "We Are Family," and "Listen." As far as musicals go, its about as much of a musical as Ray and Walk the Line.

But people really liked both of those films, and I don't blame them. For some reason, people really aren't comfortable with watching someone break out into song. And I don't understand this notion. We think its cool when people bust into rap freestyle, right? Everyone seems to accept that Eminem and Xzhibit can freestyle in a Detroit factory lunchline in Curtis Hanson's 8 Mile, but to watch Edward Norton and Natasha Leyonne tap dance about how much he loves Drew Barrymore in Woody Allen's Everyone Says I Love You? No, that's not cool. (Watching Edward Norton tap dance is actually one of the coolest things you will ever see. But unfortunately, you will also have to hear Julia Roberts sing.)

I wanted Dreamgirls to have a better balance of production numbers and songs that move the plot, which for those of you who haven't studied the history of American musical theatre as my fiance and I do, are one of the biggest changes in musical theatre made by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II. I want a musical to mean something, to tell a story--not just be entertaining and feature some nice singing and dancing.

There just seems to be this mentality that using music to tell a story isn't as acceptable as experiencing music as you would at a concert, which is why these concert-like musicals are so acceptable. People just can't seem to suspend their disbelief into a realm that allows people to express themselves through song when the character isn't a singer or musician. And this baffles me. We'll willingly believe that a psycho slasher killer hunts young teenage girls on road trips, that Hobbits, elves and men fight the forces of evil in Middle Earth, or that people can actually enter airports to say goodbye and hello to loved ones. So why can't we believe that song is an acceptable form of narrative expression? That's the whole point of the genre of musicals, especially those written after WWI, and the concert-style musicals just aren't what musicals are supposed to be. It's sort of cheating a genre.

And people were accepting of Chicago because it made the original vaudeville style of the show into an acceptable way of cheating the genre to market it to audiences who aren't willing to suspend their disbelief to include a world where song and dance happens spontenously. In Chicago, Roxie's dreams of stardom create an alternate reality in which song and dance spring to life from every day occurrences. The sounds of the jailhouse become the rhythm and bass for "Cell Block Tango," which takes place in Roxie's head in something Bill Condon called "Razzle Vision." But even then, even when we remove the spontaneous song and dance element from the real world and put it into Razzle Vision, Kander & Ebb's songs still furthered the plot and told narrative stories about the characters in the film. (How would Roxie and Velma ever partner up if Velma hadn't sang out about how she simply "Can't Do It Alone?")

And that's what Dreamgirls lacks. It lacks a powerful narrative. It lacks balanced songs that drive the plot and drive the characters. This is a problem with a number of musicals about music--they forget that a musical has to tell a story through music, not just feature it. At least Jersey Boys really tried to be both a musical and a play with music about music group. (It didn't always work, but at least it tried. I mean, what the hell is "Earth Angel" doing in Act I, anyway?)

So, I understand why people love love love Dreamgirls. Please, go ahead and love it. At least its continuing to show some small acceptance of the musical genre, even if it is a bit misguided and ill-informed.

Don't get me wrong. I didn't hate Dreamgirls. I really liked it. It had too many good artistic aspects and performances, including Broadway's Anika Noni Rose, whom I adore, to be bad. But it wasn't great. And the Academy Awards are not supposed to award mediocrity . . . but then again, Crash did win Best Picture last year . . . so perhaps the Dreamgirls lovers are right. Maybe Dreamgirls is supposed to be in that category. But I don't want it to be, just like I didn't want Crash to be there. Both of those films are good, but they are not Best Picture. So I will accept the fact that Dreamgirls was not nominated for Best Picture as an official apology to me for giving the award to Crash last year over ANYTHING ELSE in that category, be it Brokeback Mountain or Capote.

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