Wednesday, December 27, 2006

my other hair is a mercedes

In another life I was an entertainment writer. My pearls of wisdom could be found on the Internet and in a couple of local newspapers, here and there. In that incarnation, I did a passel of movie reviews. I will admit now, for the first time, that I was assigned one or two films too heinous for all but the most hardcore and drunken cinephiles and that because I fit into neither category, I reviewed those movies without the benefit of actually seeing them.

What, do you really think Ebert and Roeper watch all the dreck they give thumbs up? Bah.

But if I'd been called upon to review Dreamgirls, I would've jumped at the chance to watch it. And now that I have, I can say I would've been glad that I did, versus wishing I could've saved two precious hours of my life by making shit up.

All kinds of meaningful (says me) commentary and penetrating (also says me) observations about race, colorism, class, gender, and culture run through my mind when I think about the film. Foremost, I realize that the portrayal of Black folks in American cinema has come a long way. It's terrifically consequential to have popcorn fare like Dreamgirls and a weightier existential concern like The Pursuit of Happyness playing at the same time. But, it's still easy to fit the characters in Dreamgirls into the stereotypes film historian Donald Bogle proffers in his book Toms, Coons, Mammies, Mulattoes, and Bucks. In fact, let's take a look at the main characters: Jimmy Early (Eddie Murphy), coon; Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx), buck; Deena Jones (Beyonce), mulatto; Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), mammy. Well, there we have it. If anyone disagrees, read Bogle and get back to me.

I find it best not to get lathered up over these things. Dreamgirls is, above all things, a high-hatted musical in the grand tradition. If it were a dog, it would be a big, slobbering St. Bernard, jumping on you and knocking you down, getting all in your face to get you to show emotion. It's that emphatic. And, take my word, it will get some feeling out of you. But it's neither the triumph nor the tromping of the dream girls themselves that will make you cry, it's the way they sing about it all in the film's two big musical numbers.

If we wanted to dabble in real life here, we'd take a closer look at what happened to the people these characters are based on. Diana Ross/Deena Jones ricocheted straight to the top, knobby knees and all, while Florence Ballard/Effie White sank to welfare and a gravelly grave at age 32. But we don't want to see that in a movie. We got our own troubles.

So let's talk about what we do want to see, and how Dreamgirls delivers the object of our desire with the force of 10,000 dancing Rockettes.


The wigs, they rule.

Of course this isn't even a sixteenth of the tricked-out wigness featured, and not even the best. There are wigs in Dreamgirls that make the mouth water, the jaw drop. Real hair that naturally grows from scalps is so over. None of it is good enough, and I don't care if you're freakin' Cher, circa 1972. This movie hips you to the fact: you need to get yourself a wig. You only have to wear it during moments of high drama, if that makes you more comfortable, but you simply must have at least one, and that's that. How else are you going to fake your way to the top?

In his New York Times review of Dreamgirls, A. O. Scott laments that "The decades are marked by the progression of hairstyles, lapels, jewelry and dresses...." To which I say, You damn right!

I've listened to the 20th Anniversary benefit concert on CD, and didn't go to the movie expecting anything provocative or lasting. (Or even an engaging musical journey. With the exception of the anthem "And I Am Telling You," the rest of it remains stage music, inextricably weighted by the story it has to help tell.) For me it was all about aesthetics, and Dreamgirls drips with aesthetics.

Schmin, my movie buddy, hadn't thought about much of this beforehand, but agreed that the wigs were badass. He was also impressed with the acting, and with Anika Noni Rose, his official nomination in the sexy category.

Here we are on Christmas day. In anticipation of the happening head coverage to come, I'd brought a little drama of my own.

Here's a link to the LA times article on Jennifer Holliday's reaction to the film. I know the filmmakers weren't obligated to her, but still.


shobhana said...

great post! i'm a pretty serious cinephile and i'd love to see the wigs. but, with the exception of the original screen version of Grease, i just can't stomach musicals. and my love for Grease is purely nostalgic. i saw it about 12 times or so when i was a kid and i know every line of dialogue and song by heart. there's just something about people bursting out into song in that completely over-the-top dramatic-y sort of way that makes my skin crawl.

speaking of film - the thing i love most about austin are the alamo drafthouse cinemas. if you're into film you'll love them too. oh, and they serve food and booze at your seat while you're watching the movie!

Sachi said...

You're so hot!!! And I can't wait to see this film.

Nik said...

I was wondering why they used Jennifer Holiday's vocals in one of the trailers myself after I heard it on the website last week. I assumed that they had her permission. Sounds like she's pissed, from the article.

jacqueline said...

funnily enough i am a cinema studies minor at university so one of my great loves about knitting is that it gives me an excuse to plonk myself in front of the tube and watch movies all day long.

there are very few musicals which inspire me enough to go and watch them(aside from the fact that i tend to go see them in london's west end or broadway as infrequently as i am in those two parts of the world), however your review has pipped my curiosity enough to want to see it.

and after reading your review, i hesitate to add...i think i need me a wig!

Deborah said...

I really didn't understand the point with the riot scene. That really bothered me. I can take fluff and narcissistic photo orgies but trivilizing events that are so seriously linked to one's freedom is just dumb.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

Oh, you're a Dreamgirl...or a double agent in that get up with the Most Honorable on High, Andre.

Interesting response to the film, but dont' get me wrong: I only came because I value our friendship, so call off the dogs, already. Last time I was here I was looking at plump yellow asses.

Me no think Dreamgirls was a great at all, but God was it fun, wigs and all.
Singing. I was into the cinematography. All those black people WELL-LIT? That's an accomplishment in it of itself. How many green brown cripsy black people have I had to stare at over the years in poorly lit films? Too many.

Ah the lucious turn of phrase that is Carlita. "This movie hips you to the fact: you need to get yourself a wig. You only have to wear it during moments of high drama, if that makes you more comfortable, but you simply must have at least one, and that's that. How else are you going to fake your way to the top?" I only pray to Carlita. I leave now to get snatch up a few wigs for YAY. Gotta a little faking of my own to do later this week.

Makes me wanna do my own review...maybe not. Two articles due, I'm on a fast and I'm struggling not to write anything I ain't gonna get paid for...ah what the hell.

sappmama said...

Shobhana -- food et booze? I'm there.

Sachi, what can I say? :)

Nik, yes, pissed and sad.

Jacqueline, do it! I'll wear one of mine on the same day!