Touched by an Oprah
Sequins, Feathers, and Code Words for ‘Fat’
There seems to be a lot of talk about Dreamgirls lately—talk of the Oscar variety (bzzzzzzzzt!), talk of the “this is a good movie” variety (psssssssh), talk of the “eeeeeeee!” variety (uuuuuugh). Now, I realize that Oprah reached down from her golden throne and touched you in your special area while whispering sweet nothings about Dreamgirls. I realize that Beyoncé’s fake hair is really, really pretty. I realize that Jennifer Hudson is kind of a superchunk, but you kind of don’t mind looking at her, and that kind of makes you feel good about yourself. But it’s time for YOU to realize that this movie is not good. This movie is nothing but problems. And fat people don’t need your pity.
Adapted from the popular 1981 stage musical, Dreamgirls follows a 1960s girl group, the Dreamettes (pointedly based on the Supremes), on their three-decade rise to the top. Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) is the group’s leader, ruling the crowd with fierce wails and shimmies, with Deena Jones (Beyoncé, robotic as usual) and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose, cute as a button and criminally underused) bringing up the rear. They take up with an oily wannabe producer, Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), and hit the road, singing backup for Jimmy Early (Eddie Murphy, surprisingly aaaaawesome!), a James Brown-ish, Marvin Gaye-ish, hilarious bundle of cocaine and charm.
Effie is a “full-figured” gal, variously referred to as “real” and a “real woman,” which are annoying ways of tiptoeing around “fatso.” She’s also a powerful, incredible, supernaturally charismatic vocalist (seconded, strangely enough, by Murphy—“Whatzupwitu,” anyone?), and the only one in the cast with a shred of soul. (She’s also not that fat.) She hooks up with Taylor (his sisters were “real,” he explains creepily), who—as the ’70s roll in and his moustache thickens—promptly dumps her for Deena and kicks her out of the group. How empowering.
History passes cursorily—some MLK footage here, a mention of the Detroit riots there, the poetic line, “My brother’s over in Vietnam fighting in a pointless war and I’m angry about it!”—with no effect on the plot. Its musical history is suspect as well. Dreamgirls would have you believe that Berry Gordy Jr. (AKA Curtis Taylor, Jr.) was single-handedly responsible for every major musical development since 1960 (every half hour or so, he shouts, “we need a new sound!” and dreams up R&B, then pop, then disco). Dreamgirls would have you believe that Florence Ballard (AKA Effie White), the lost Supreme, eventually returned to a happy, successful solo career (in real life, she died at 32 in alcoholic poverty). Dreamgirls would have you believe that Diana Ross was a bona-fide “queen of disco” (sorry, but “Upside Down” sucks), and that James Brown dropped his pants and invented rap in front of a live audience (okay, that part might be true), and then was forced into obscurity (though “Who was the first person to wear shiny clothes? That was ME!” might be one of my favorite lines in a movie ever).
As a star vehicle for Beyoncé’s dressmaker, Dreamgirls is awesome—each outfit more spangly and Cher-worthy than the last. But as an actual movie, it suffers from a complete lack of a point—one potential conflict after another meekly retreating under the onslaught of Beyoncé’s wardrobe. At first, you think it’s going to be about racism: The Dreamettes get classified as “race music,” they’re kept off the mainstream charts and out of the classy clubs, corny white groups co-opt their songs (that part’s actually pretty funny), but then the whole race thing just kind of disappears (because, as we all know, racism was fixed by the mid-’70s). Or maybe it’s about fat acceptance, or payola, or deadbeat dads, or—OMG, are those feathers? And sequins? On her head? Eeeeeeeeeeeeee!
Dreamgirls feels, in the watching, a lot like one of VH1’s Movies That Rock: like The Jacksons: An American Dream, or Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story. If I were to come across Dreamgirls on TV at 11:00 a.m. on a hung-over Tuesday, I’d be all about it (catch Too Legit Friday, December 29 at 8:00 a.m. and watch Hammer’s diamond palace crumble!), but to pay cashmoneydollars in an actual theater? It’s like ordering some fancy fish at Ponti Seafood Grill and having Pat Cashman show up with a Taco Time burrito. It’s like replacing my real movie with a glossy, two-dimensional, really, really big Beyoncé paper doll. Man, fuck Oprah.