the dream's dream (...to be continued)
So, one thing I’ve been intending to do was post something about Dreamgirls (2006, Bill Condon), which I managed to see within a few days of moving here. (Volver too, but it didn’t provoke many thoughts beyond wondering if the direct comments of other characters’ about Penelope Cruz’s breasts are meant to function mythically, like Audrey Hepburn’s jokes about Cary Grant’s chin-cleft [“How do you shave in there?”] in Charade.) On the other hand, something I’ve been trying to do here is keep this blog less reactive and/or parasitic than the last one. Now, with this post of Jane’s, it becomes difficult to fulfill the first intention without tripping over the second.
So be it: much of the below is roughly what I had planned to write anyway, though it turns out to be easier to get traction with something to push off from. I too have noted descriptions of the movie's songs as “inaccurate pastiches of Motown.” But I’m not inclined to characterize those descriptions, or what they assert, as “well-remarked.” I’m inclined to call them “just about wholly irrelevant to the quality of the work, and ignorant - to the point of being culturally blinkered - to the generic assumptions of the American musical.” Pointing out that “Move,” say, sounds like something written by someone who has likely heard and paid some attention to what came out of Detroit in the mid-‘60s, and not like whatever the Motown equivalent of The Rutles would be, is about as critically trenchant as it would be to note that community square dances in 1906 were not usually accompanied by 40-piece orchestras, as they are in Oklahoma!, or that "Miracle of Miracles" is a little brassy for the shtetl. Put another way: is it a problem with animation that Mickey Mouse is an inaccurate drawing of a mouse?
And, as Jane presumably knows, one reason that many of the songs sound like Broadway showtunes is that they are Broadway showtunes – though I would argue with the notion that they are of “no particular provenance, “because even those that do not make overt reference to the styles of popular music relevant to the story are written in a rock-ballad/recitative-heavy musical idiom not much in evidence on Broadway before the ‘70s. (I’m also confused by the notion that the songs are “shot like” a Broadway musical, in that Broadway musicals are theatrical works, not cinematic ones. I realize that some other things might have been intended by this sentence, and that I’m not reading charitably but since we know that Jane, of all people, is capable of distinguishing materially different modes of representation, I read it as symptomatic of a relative lack of interest in those under discussion.)
That ends what I feel like I’m on fairly solid ground in saying. (Except, that is, for the things that I simply agree with Jane about, including the invidiousness of the comparison between the soul and disco versions of “One Night Only”—which one would you release as a single, and, more broadly, between J. Hudson and B. Knowles’ vocal styles.) The more interesting and complicated points involve the following facts:
(1) Dreamgirls is an instance of one of the hoariest and most popular musical subgenres, for obvious enough reasons: the “backstager,” or show about showbiz. See Gypsy, 42nd Street, A Chorus Line. That makes possible a range ways of handling those songs performed diegetically by the characters (i.e., in clubs or concerts), only one of which is to have them perform precisely the material that the characters, were they actual performers, would perform.
(2) In how it employs (and adds to) the show’s music, the movie is not all that faithful to the Broadway show. In this respect, it’s more in line with MGM’s adaptations of stage hits in the ‘40s and ‘50s than with Condon’s previous Chicago. Both approaches have their merits, but in this case, there have been some mistakes in judgment.
(3) Questions of whether theater music “gets” popular music “wrong” or not are, I suspect, predicated on the false notion that the two are discontinuous.
(4) Much of the songwriting is, indeed, poor. There’s no small irony in the fact that Smokey R. and H/D/H likely learned more from Berlin and Porter and Kern and Hammerstein and Rodgers and Hart, and used what they learned more effectively, than composer Henry Kreiger and lyricist Tom Ewen learned from any of the above.
I’ll try to expand on some of the above with a few specifics later in the week. (Well, the way things have been shaking out, let’s say the weekend.) I probably don’t ultimately think the movie is much better than Jane does, but I do think what there is to say about it doesn’t quite end with the point that it’s a spectacular production burdened with an anti-spectacular thematic freight.
By the way, to anticipate: race, specifically the race of the songwriters, has as much to do with what makes all this interesting and complicated as the race of the persons associated with the publishing credits of “Proud Mary” and “All Along the Watchtower” (I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a guitar mixed that loud on a television broadcast) has to do with the signification of Prince’s covers-of-black-artists’-covers of same a couple Sundays ago.