Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Roles they were born to play

I saw Dreamgirls, which opens Christmas Day. I read somewhere that its hotly anticipated winter release is like The Lord of the Rings for gay men. I found this odd, because I thought that The Lord of the Rings trilogy WAS The Lord of the Rings for gay men.

I'm going to approach this review a little differently because I noticed something as I watched it. The musical about the fictional Dreamettes gets its obvious inspiration from the story of Motown, specifically its producer Berry Gordy, Jr., and his bread and butter, Diana Ross and the Supremes. But watching Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) take center stage in a personnel-changing girl group reminded me of another, more recent story: Destiny's Child. It soon became clear to me that, for personal reasons, this was the role she was born to play.

This idea is even more fascinating when you consider the casting of Eddie Murphy as James "Thunder" Early, the headliner that helped give the Dreamettes their first big break. He's loud and boisterous, and is musically and sartorially way ahead of his time. Part wiseass showman, part ambitious businessman. Part James Brown, part Stevie Wonder. It's like Eddie Murphy has spent most of his career preparing for this role.

The third cast member who's living the dream in Dreamgirls is Jennifer Hudson, the young and unproven diva who played that same role on season 3 of American Idol. I didn't like her on that show -- too brassy, no sense of understatement -- but as Effie White, she's the real deal. Yes, she can sing, but we get the most insight from her character when she's not singing.

Jamie Foxx has the thankless duty of playing someone with which he has no personal identification, so he'll likely be the least celebrated of the main cast. But that doesn't make his top-billed performance as the record label producer and impresario
Curtis Taylor, Jr. any less important. As I watched, I wondered: why do we know so little about Deena's character if she's the lead singer, and whose dream are we really following? In one stunning scene late in the movie, he answers both questions.

I should mention that none of these actors were my favorite. That would be Anika Noni Rose, who played Lorrell Robinson, the steady third Dreamette and sort of the Kelly Rowland of that era. It's a funny, sexy performance that complements Murphy well and sneaks up on you, no small feat given the proximate starpower.


Quinn said...

Saw the preview for Dreamgirls when Spouse and I ventured to see the fake-ass Bond movie. When we noticed Beyonce playing a Ross-esque role, both of us turned to the other, and in our best Troy McClure voice, said, "It's the role I was born to play, baby!"

Neel Mehta said...

Fake-ass Bond movie? Interesting description. We'll have to talk about that at some point.

Nice mention of Troy McClure. I've got a reference to him all lined up for a post soon to come.

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