Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Monday, February 26, 2007


In the week before Oscar night I got out to see
The Departed and Dreamgirls, both more notable for their performances than for their scripts, but both enjoyable.

Several commentators have written that
Dreamgirls represents the victory of soul-less pop a la Beyonce over soulful R & B a la Jennifer Hudson, but I didn’t see how soul or a diminishment of quality had anything to do with it. The Berry Gordy character, played by Jamie Foxx, was always looking for that “new sound” (echoing Ezra Pound’s modernist injunction, “Make It New”), and Beyonce’s style represented that. The movie makes no qualitative judgment in favor of the new or the traditional -- it presents both as aesthetically worthwhile. If anything, the movie favors the new.

The movie’s use of the one song which both singers sing, “One Night Only,” shows its bias towards the new. Beyonce’s disco version gets climactic pride of place, upstaging Jennifer Hudson’s R & B soul take. Most tellingly, it’s Beyonce’s version that gets played over the closing credits. A movie can’t make a more direct endorsement of one song, or one version, over another than that. Dramatically, one feels for Hudson's character Effie, simply because one is rooting for the underdog. She's Rocky, and we root for her, but that doesn
’t mean we think she’s better. (But I was always rooting for Beyonce too.)

By the time Effie gets fired, she deserves to be fired. The viewer sympathizes with her, and the way her boyfriend and manager (Jamie Foxx) treats her is despicable, but by that time her behavior is professionally undependable.

Big star Beyonce demanded a climactic show-stopping song to balance Jennifer Hudson’s in the middle of the film, and she got it, and she was right to demand it. I’ve heard the song twice now, Friday night at the movies and Sunday night on the Oscars, and I don’t remember it, but I remember the gist of its lyrics, and I remember Beyonce’s terrific intensity. Beyonce’s Deena says to her husband, Jamie Foxx’s Curtis, that she isn’t going to put up with his cruelty any more. Contrast that with Effie’s show-stopper, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” the kind of ultra-vulnerable song Judy Garland used to excel at, tinged with a pitiable and masochistic delusion. Hudson tears her song up, but Beyonce comes out on top as dramatically the stronger, more self-possessed character, and as movie singers they’re equally compelling.

Singing on film can be more persuasive than a body-less recording. D. A. Pennebaker’s wonderful documentary on the recording of the Broadway soundtrack to Stephen Sondheim’s
Company demonstrates this beautifully. Elaine Stritch gives amazing take after take of her show-stopping song, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” only to have Sondheim and the producer reject them. And Sondheim and the producer were right: The takes were theatrically effective -- brilliantly so -- but sonicly overwrought, and Pennebaker, in his only commentary during the film, remarks on the paradox of the camera loving the performance while the microphone did not. They ended up booking another session several days later for Elaine to try it again. Stritch dialed back the intensity from 11 to 10, and the resulting record is great.

Which is to say, I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that Beyonce without visuals is more distinctive and compelling a singer than Jennifer Hudson. But on screen, they both cooked like crazy.

My first reaction to the film was:

1. Great performances with the exception of Jamie Foxx, who’s not nearly charming or charismatic or mentally menacing enough for the part -- just think of the scene where he tells Deena he controls her artistic destiny -- he just comes off as a run-of-the-mill asshole, not the very smart, very shrewd, very compelling asshole that Berry Gordy must have been. But everybody else was terrific.

2. The songs -- mostly forgettable. But then I saw the Oscar broadcast, and the hook from “You’re the perfect man for me, I love you I do” has been stuck in my head all day.

3. The songs that aren’t forgettable are icky. The narrative songs -- “we’re a family” -- unpersuasive treacle. And the title song -- eww. They’re dreamgirls, they’ll always be there for you in your dreams, with heavy undertones of masturbation -- not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s hardly the stuff of wholesome pop.

4. And -- so dreamily -- in the movie they pick asshole men who treat them like crap. Except Michelle, the replacement Dreamgirl, who takes up with Effie’s handsome songwriter brother.

5. The stuff about the songwriter complaining about his songs becoming hits in versions he doesn’t like -- sure, yeah, maybe, in an artsy snobby Jonathan-Franzen-dissing-Oprah’s-book-club sort of way, but dude, you’re getting paid! Get over yourself!

6. The little girl who plays Effie’s daughter -- her stoicism -- she’s perfect.

7. The story is thinnnnnn. And the characters.

8. I’d watch it on video, just to see the show-stopping songs again. Maybe hearing them a third time will lodge them in my mind’s ear.

The Departed has terrific performances from top to bottom, but the story ends with a Shakespearean bloodbath, and I hate that when the Bard pulls it too. And the belief refused to get suspended at several points in the story. But all those stars sure are handsome and self-possessed and hardworking and charismatic. I enjoyed seeing them.

Enjoyed the Oscars. Everybody at work thought Ellen was hilarious, and I agree. I didn’t see enough of the films to have opinions about outcomes. “You’re the perfect man for me, I love you I do” should have beat Melissa Etheridge’s cliche-doomed preach-a-thon from the Al Gore documentary for best song. “Wake up” as a call to action -- No. It takes a lot more than that. Nobody’s sleeping. That metaphor doesn’t work for me.

Celine Dion is an endearingly awkward performer, with un-posed-looking facial expressions, but I don’t remember that song either.

Al Gore was funny.

I think Michelle is played by Anika Noni Rose, an actor whom I saw several times when I lived in San Francisco (she graduated from the American Conservatory Theater's program).

Ellen was fine -- the reactions to Chris Rock and Jon Stewart shows that the Academy wants disarming over edgy, so they got that. I saw only a few of the movies, but I did see "The Queen" yesterday and Dame Helen was great. I suppose it's irritating to some that people who play "real" people get Oscars by the bucketful these days, but I'd argue it's much harder to play someone iconic like Queen Elizabeth (or Kate Hepburn, or Truman Capote, or Ray Charles) and make them believable and soulful without veering into caricature.

Hated the Etheridge song, too. Never have been able to get into her. Met her at a party in Chicago right after her first record came out and thought she was a little diva-ish then, but eh...

Anika Noni Rose played the 3rd Dreamgirl, Lorell, not the replacement Dreamgirl, Michelle, who was played by (I had to look it up) Sharon Leal. Lorell dates the Eddie Murphy character, who's married the whole time. Ms. Rose was really good in the role.

I thought Ellen was funnier than Jon Stewart. I didn't see Chris Rock's year.
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