It feels a tad strange, with Broadway in dire straits as far as new musicals are concerned, to feel almost giddily optimistic about the future of the movie musical. And yet giddy I am.
The cause for this is the new Dreamgirls movie, of course. It's yet more proof that, after so many decades in the wilderness, movie directors (or at least people allowed to direct movies) are finally figuring out how to make musicals with the language of modern movies. Prior to the current crop of new musicals, we've had two equally unsatisfactory templates to draw on. There was the model remaining from the last era of successful movie musicals--delightfully overgrown stage productions filmed with the appropriate restraint. And the music video, and the assorted rock films that preceded them. Awesome for three + minutes, trippy for an hour and a half, these left little on which to hang a narrative.
Navigating a happy medium between these two influences has been understandably difficult. Yet today, we have a burgeoning vocabulary for the movie musical which seems to have real staying power. It takes advantage of the kinetic energy audiences expect from modern editing styles, yet never degenerates into the monotony of constant stimulation. It is a language of spectacle, certainly, but a language of the camera which constantly dissects that spectacle. It uses the intimacy of the music video closeup but eschews its tendency to displace the viewer in time and space. The greater structure of the number is always present and dominant.
Perhaps more importantly, these developments embrace the pop musical recitative common to modern musicals. Dreamgirls uses these parts of the score judiciously, and to be sure, they are awkward for the audience at first. Yet these sequences, so critical to the real goal of advancing the plot through music, are filmed skillfully and win over the viewer quickly. Take note Tim Burton. Excising huge chunks of the Sweeney Todd score because they are too talky will not be taken as lightly.
I'm not going to pretend that Dreamgirls doesn't have its problems, because it does. (Take all this with a grain of salt, tho...I've never seen it onstage, so I don't really know what the book entails.) There is a tendency to use montage to solve those problems left to imagination on the stage, and this becomes alienating on film. And a number of filler numbers retained in the film still feel like filler.
But shweet Jesus did I have a good time. And by far the best times came from the musical sections. This is not a movie that tells its story and has some nifty musical interludes. This is a movie where the story intimately depends on the musical numbers. And it was exhilarating. So everyone and their mother needs to pay their 9 and change for this, because we need to send a message in support of Hollywood's newfound infatuation with the musical. There's a reason why the musical format has produced some of the smartest and most beloved films of the last several years: think Chicago, Moulin Rouge, Hedwig, and South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. Society craves the musical theatre, and the recent drought cannot last.
Quick shout outs: Beyonce acquits herself admirably, especially in her big new torch song. Eddie Murphy is fantastic as Jimmy Early. Jamie Foxx was fine, tho his voice was def the weak link in the cast...funny considering all the hype he got for that Ray Charles movie.
As to the matter of how "I'm Not Going" is carried off by a certain Miss Jennifer Hudson. Now, I wouldn't want to oversell it by saying I thought I was going to pass out due to the involuntary spasms of sheer delight racking my body. So I will simply say that Ms. Hudson does not disappoint.