Wednesday, December 27, 2006


How could a musicologist not like this movie?

Well, there is one reason not to: jealousy. I've taught and TAed a lot of popular music in the past few years. In our classes we tend to focus a lot on the black/white color line. And this being a sensitive issue, we go to great trouble to present issues that get at the heart of this divide in particularly interesting and complicated ways. For instance, the phenomenon of cover songs in the fifties, or the dueling aesthetics of Motown and Stax in the sixties. Both of these issues show how complicated it is to have a "black" or a "white" aesthetic in popular music, and how such aesthetics are always mediated by market forces, by politics, and by individual personalities.

We go to great lengths to teach our students these issues. We spend a lot of classroom time and energy on them. And then comes along a movie that not only teaches all this basically as well as we do, but succinctly, and with style. Not unproblematically, of course, but just because the movie makes its own biases clear--soul music/black authenticity good, disco music/white inauthenticity bad--it nevertheless presents the issues in a fairly reasoned manner. I can tell that for the rest of my life I'm going to be referring to Dreamgirls in class, and that makes me jealous.

There is a lot more to be said about this movie. I really enjoyed it, although it was hard to turn off my musicological brain at times (for a movie that hates disco, they sure wrote a lot of faux Motown numbers with that patented disco accented riding hi-hat beat). But I want to point out one more thing, in addition to my own consuming jealousy. The truly tragic figure in this movie is not Jennifer Hudson's character, but Beyoncé, who plays the faux Diana Ross character. I've long claimed that Beyoncé is the Diana Ross of her generation. Like Diana, she doesn't have a strong voice. It is not that it is an unpleasant voice, but it is not particularly forceful in the way that the American public likes its black women singers. It wasn't a coincidence that her manager parents set her up in a girl group to start off her career; her voice was not strong enough to stand on its own, and the close harmony singing of Destiny's Child was necessary to provide her with vocal support. Even when she went solo, Beyoncé's producers overdubbed, reverbed, digitally altered, and otherwise provided the support necessary. Her first single sounded just like Destiny's Child, except with three digital Beyoncés instead of one Beyoncé and two friends.

Diana Ross, of course, was much the same story. As the movie shows, she had a light and somewhat colorless voice. Berry Gordy's great innovation was not just to put her as the front singer of the Supremes, but also to write music that pitched her voice unnaturally low. If you listen to some of the Supremes/Primettes early music, you can hear her singing in her original high pitched voice, and it is not particularly attractive. Pitched low, however, her voice became sultry. Recall "Where Did Our Love Go," for example, their first big HDH hit. Add in great production and the best backing band in the world, and you don't even notice that her voice isn't doing much.

So that's the history of Diana Ross's voice, courtesy of a class on Motown I TAed last year. The tragic thing about Dreamgirls is that it forces Beyoncé to perform Diana Ross's weaknesses while inhabiting a body with the same weakness. And the movie goes to great lengths not only to show that Effie White is a better singer than Deena Jones, but that Jennifer Hudson is a better singer than Beyoncé Knowles. I don't know if that was what Beyoncé was expecting out of making this movie. Poor woman.

But go see it! Alex Ross approves.


sushipjs said...

What also struck me about this movie was how consistently it relied on multiple layers of meaning. As you noted, the Beyoncé/Diana Ross connection was very powerful. Eddie Murphy's character also had an interesting parallel to real life. I had difficulty accepting his character as anything but comic because of Murphy's past impersonations of James Brown. SNL's "In The Hot Tub" lingered throughout many of his early soul scenes. By the time it is clear that his character has lost his musical direction in endless love-songs, it feels about as unnatural to watch as it is to confront Murphy as a tragic figure. Pretty intense stuff.

BBound said...

They totally played on the SNL Eddie Murphy thing too--the character he plays is clearly based on Marvin Gaye, biographically speaking, but his personality and some of his music is much more James Brown (or maybe someone from outside Motown, like Wilson Pickett). I wonder how the character was played in the musical.

sushipjs said...

I figured he could have been Marvin Gaye by the Black Nationalist skull cap for the song "patience." Maybe he was supposed to be a composite of all the "outside" soul singers who weren't James Brown? I dunno... but I gotta tell you, I found myself laughing at the wrong parts during his scenes because of that SNL stuff. Eek!

Violet Vixen said...

This is a really great post. I love it. I do, however, want to say not to forget that it was a musical first and has existed for 20 years.