All musicals have a special problem when it comes to storytelling. They use two tracks of communication, drama and music. The writer must let each form do what it does best and then somehow connect them and make them appear to be one line.
Dreamgirls has many fine elements, most especially some of its pop songs and a number of dazzling performances. But the screenplay is not its strength. The script is serviceable, allowing the writer to hang the songs on a storyline. But even that breaks down about half way through, so the second half of the movie feels like a concert with too many songs stuffed down our throats.
Not surprisingly, the story problems come out of the character setup. In the beginning of the film, Effie is the main character. She is the lead singer and the driving force in the group’s desire to reach the top. But the Dreamgirls are quickly taken over by Curtis (Jamie Foxx), who determines all the action steps the group will take. The problem with Curtis as a character is that there is nothing inside. He’s not a person, he’s a money-making machine. Also, even though he is driving the action, he is the Dreamgirls’ main opponent.
This kind of character setup isn’t a problem as long as Effie is the lead singer of the group. But halfway through the story, she gets tossed out. At this point Dreamgirls essentially ends. But there’s still half a movie to go, and the second half feels infinitely longer than the first. Why? Notice the domino effect. Replacing Effie as lead singer is Deena (Beyonce Knowles), who has been chosen because she is so plastic and bland. So she can’t carry the second half of the story. That leaves the plot pusher, Curtis, but all of his action steps at this point involve making more money, which is the same story beat. So the story fractures and grinds to a halt. Now the songs have no line to hang on, no emotion to punctuate. No matter how good a song might be on its own, each one feels, at this point in the film, like a big fat blob. I found myself begging the screen, “Please don’t make me sit through another interminable song.”
A lot has been made of the writer’s attempt to go beyond the personal to the historical and the political. To show the rise of black music during the civil rights era and how black music was then co-opted by the white corporate establishment. I certainly applaud the effort. But the technique isn’t there. Again the prime culprit is all those never-ending songs. The writer has no time to develop the complex interconnections between the musical history and the political history. So he relies on the old film chestnut, the montage. This is shorthand writing, and all it does is confirm the simplest stereotypes. In fact, Dreamgirls includes one of the most offensive scenes of the year, when it shows a terrific “black” song being stolen and defiled by a truly horrible white pop band that is supposed to stand for all “white” music.
For me the most interesting element in this movie is one it did not intend. Thematically it paints itself into a corner; it moves logically and inexorably to an indictment of itself. Dreamgirlssupposedly shows the history of Motown music, but it doesn’t have any Motown songs. It shows the corruption of soul music into generic pap, acceptable to all, and the movie is just another example of that endpoint.