Thursday, January 04, 2007

Satanism, imps, Dreamgirls

Embarrassing personal revelation: at one point in my life I knew every lyric to the musical Gypsy. I think/hope I've forgotten them. More to the point, no one should try to test me. (The reason is this: I did some theater when I was much younger and was always cast in the domineering woman role--witches, royalty and sub-royalty, overbearing mothers--because I was so much taller than everyone else and I had a big voice. I had some dream of playing Mama Rose, even though I think she's usually played by a sparkplug actress rather than a giantess and I have a truly terrible singing voice.)

Youthful follies aside, I'm not much for musicals. I was thus faced with a big personal challenge re: Dreamgirls. I love Motown music, particularly the girl groups, with a real passion. My three favorite songs ever are "Tracks of My Tears" by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, "Rescue Me" by Martha and the Vandellas, and "I Want You Back" by the Jackson 5. I'm fascinated by Diana Ross's sweet but remote vocal style--so different from Martha Reeves' exuberance--because she's an extraordinary performer who can make that coolness sound compelling. Ben's favorite film reviewer (see here, here, here, and especially here) calls Diana Ross a "glamorous imp" in his review. I'll let that catalogue of Ben's annoyance stand for my suspicion of that adjective paired with that noun and that noun used to describe Diana Ross. Oh, and while I'm at it, Uli's Diana Ross dress on Project Runway was one of my top five looks of last season.

So I love Motown but I hate musicals--particularly the songs in the musicals, which a) are obviously the most important component, and b) usually have to do too much work in the story because they're the most important component. They have to tell a story in rhyme, promote character development, promote plot development, make obvious an Important Moment in the plot, and be entertaining. I think that's way too much to ask of a pop song (the last task on that list is hard enough!), which is why the idea of making a musical about pop music using pastiches of the originals underwhelms me.

Anyway, my mom and I went to see Dreamgirls the day after it came out in ABQ. We were having a pretty good time until this line: "You are so horribly satanic, / The way you lead me around / I feel just like the Titanic..." I don't think the success or failure of the movie hinges on that line, of course, but it's a good example of how the lyrics from Dreamgirls are so leaden compared to the songs they're honoring/approximating. That line is supposed to sound clever, foreshadow the business and love relationship problems later in the movie, show off Effie's showstopping lead vocals as the original lead singer of the Dreamettes (she steps out of the trio for that line, and she sounds great delivering a dumb line), and remind the film's audience of real Motown performances. "Satanic" doesn't belong in a 1960s Motown song, though. The line is too weird, and it's a reminder that the songs are fourth-rate imitations rather than the real thing. There may be odd similies in some of the Holland-Dozier-Holland catalogue, but they don't have the weight of an entire storyline on them.

There are a couple of songs and performances that transcend imitation: Jennifer Hudson's performance of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" and Eddie Murphy's songs. They're both great. That said, I'd rather see Jill Scott's and Erykah Badu's brilliant, uneasy performance of "You Got Me" in Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Jill Scott wrote the song for the Roots; Erykah Badu sang it in the recorded version and joins Scott onstage to perform it, and the result is something between a collaboration and a competition. That's a really amazing performance, partly because the dynamic between the two performers is unpredictable, and mostly because it's a better song than the one that Effie and Deena both record (as soul and as disco, respectively) in Dreamgirls. The final number of Dreamgirls has too much to do--provide redemption for Effie, promote cooperation between all four members of the group, give Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx) his comeuppance, etc.--to be a song that's memorable as a good piece of music. The performances have to carry the movie. Sometimes they do, but other times they're a reminder of the artistry that's only approximated in the songs themselves.
Anonymous Katy on Sat Jan 06, 01:56:00 PM:
I went to see Dreamgirls last night and was prepared for the satanic/Titanic line, thanks to your post. I DIDN'T REALIZE IT CAME SO EARLY IN THE MOVIE. Good grief.

I am also a musicals-hater (in spite of my secret love for The Sound of Music—shh!), and I grew up listening to a lot of Motown. I had a really hard time watching a movie that was supposedly about Motown when none of the music SOUNDED like Motown. It wasn't just the lyrics—it was the instrumentation and the orchestration, and it was fundamentally unconvincing. Too bad—somewhere there's a really good movie to be made about Motown.
 
Blogger Xopo on Sat Jan 13, 12:40:00 PM:
OK, so I won't waste my time. I had been wavering between going and not going since I too love the music but I hate musicals (to my poor musical-loving mother's disappointment). With a passion. You convinced me, enough said. Know anything about 'Notes on a scandal'?