January 22, 2007

Viewer Discretion Advised

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I really don’t need to recommend Dreamgirls to you; the Golden Globes already has by awarding Bill Condon’s flashy and fun musical with three of their coveted orbs. Last week the film garnered a best supporting actor award for Eddie Murphy, a best supporting actress award for Jennifer Hudson and the best picture award for a musical or comedy.

Critics particularly praised Jennifer Hudson’s performance as Effie White, the original leader of The Dreams that is pushed out in favor of Diana Ross, er, I mean Deena Jones (played by Beyoncé Knowles). The last and most prestigious award — which Dreamgirls certainly deserved — prompted me to think about how ironic it was that a movie based upon what music journalist Richie Unterberger called one of rock’s greatest tragedies won an award associated with comedy.

Unlike her celluloid incarnation, the real Effie White — Florence Ballard — never made a comeback after being kicked out of the Supremes. Instead of the popcorn ending that we all enjoyed in the theaters, Ballard fell into depression, drugs, and poverty. She died nearly destitute at the age of 32.
Don’t get me wrong, Dreamgirls isn’t disrespectful of Ballard or of the legacy of the Supremes. In fact, Effie White is by far the most sympathetic character in the entire movie, and Condon and company have done her a great service by telling her story. Hudson, in a classy move, specifically dedicated her award to Ballard.

I hope the Dreamgirls example I have just cited points out why we should all appreciate the recent rebirth of the Hollywood musical over the past few years. More than any other genre, the movie musical gives directors, actors, and even audiences incredible creative license. Unlike drama, like the recently lauded Babel or the films of Martin Scorcese and dramedies like Sideways, which connects with audiences by portraying realistic and identifiable people and situations, musicals allow us to throw reason out the window.

The basic concept of the musical — that people will spontaneously sing and dance in the middle of the street — allows creators and audiences to abandon the heavy load of “realism.” Instantly we accept carte blanche the fact that Gene Kelly would be overjoyed to be caught in a torrential downpour in Singin’ In the Rain, that New York City gangs are experts at ballet-fighting in West Side Story, or that Bohemian writers and prostitutes in Belle Epoch Paris are astonishingly familiar with 1970s rock music in Moulin Rouge. All of it is no more outlandish than lightsabers or orcs.

Musicals have the remarkable ability to take a plot that in any other format would be downright depressing and make it enjoyable to watch, all the while preserving the overall message. For example, the film Chicago is essentially a tale of murder, adultery and corruption. However, its flashy presentation and biting wit made the plot surprisingly digestible while managing to never lose the take-home point of the film — if you’re good enough at manipulating people, you get much further in life than those who follow the rules.

For a while it appeared that the movie musical was gasping for its last breath of air. Eclipsed first by the counter-culture and cynical cinema of the late 1960s and 1970s, and then by the emergence of the music video, the great Hollywood musical appeared to be lost forever. Notable exceptions like The Blues Brothers and Evita were not enough to make up for mega-flops like The Wiz and Newsies which scared producers away from any more musical projects.

I really can’t pinpoint a concrete reason for the rebirth of musicals. It is just as hard to explain the appeal of musicals in the first place as it is to try to investigate their comeback. Perhaps in today’s world, we all need a bit of escapism to forget about our rather depressing reality. I’m just glad they are back as a mainstay. In fact, 2002’s Chicago became the first musical to win the Best Picture Oscar since 1968’s Oliver! This winter’s Dreamgirls will be followed this summer by a film adaptation of Broadway’s Hairspray (which is really based on John Waters’s 1988 film). In the tradition of the Hollywood musical, I can’t wait to see the serious topic of racism in 1960s Baltimore played out through bubble gum song and dance.