We can see why everyone wants to like "Dreamgirls" â€” it’s this year’s last gasp hope at across-the-board appeal, its final chance to reassure everyone in the industry that there are still Great Films That Everyone Sees, that the very idea is not extinct in this increasingly nichified film world, and that Chris Rock is wrong and frequenters of the Magic Johnson Theater would actually care about an Oscar nominee. Plus, it’s a musical! Old school Hollywood style with a hip-hop starlet.
"Dreamgirls" isn’t particularly good, though we didn’t hate it â€” it is, however, a drippy apology of a musical that sets almost all of its songs within an in-film performance, as if the sight of someone singing outside of a studio or stage would blow an audience’s collective mind. Why even bother? Okay, outside of "Chicago," which pretty much does the same thing, musicals haven’t been successes unless they’ve been animated or ironic â€” and in that case, we appreciate what "Moulin Rouge" attempts, but when Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor duel with song lyrics, it recalls nothing so much as a feud between bored record store clerks. But "Dreamgirls" ends up as something halfway between "American Idol" and a collection of forgettable music videos. A great musical number is the most dreamlike, theatrical flaunting of the conventions of narrative realism â€” "Dreamgirls" catches fire only once, in Jennifer Hudson‘s already much-discussed bellowing of "And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going," a scene cushioned in some of the film’s only sung dialogue and the only scene to convey that the emotions being expressed could not be conveyed through speech, only song.
And so, a pre-weekend list, because it’s possible that the true musical should be relegated to the realms of archaic film vocabulary along with intertitles and rear-projection, and because the best musical numbers in recent film have been more about musical lovers than the songs themselves â€” here are some films that juxtapose harsh realities with glorious escapist song-and-dance sequences:
"Pennies From Heaven": Better to skip the Steve Martin film for the Bob Hoskins miniseries, but either will do in a pinch. Dennis Potter‘s conceit, studding Depression-era misery with lip-synced numbers from songs of the era ("The Clouds Will Soon Roll By"), always struck us as verging on cruel given the British miseries that occur (and there are no miseries like working-class British miseries), but there’s no denying its power.
"The Hole": Tsai Ming-liang‘s dystopic vision finds scattered urbanites soldiering on in underpopulated Taipei tenements in an unending deluge. The man and woman whose apartments are unintentionally joined by a plumbing accident-provoked breach are lonely, but never talk. The woman has found a form of escape in her own head â€” up and down the concrete stairwells and landings of the building she images herself in a series of glittering outfits, dancer-accompanied, singing the songs of Grace Chang.
"Hedwig and the Angry Inch": Though it may have launched a thousand community theater products, "Hedwig" is best on screen, where tawdry settings can instantly give way to envisioned glamour. Best: "Wig in a Box," where the side of Hedwig’s trailer falls down to become a stage, complete with band.
"Dancer in the Dark": Lars von Trier is generally not one for subtlety, and "Dancer in the Dark"’s compare-contrast devices are more explicit than most. But before it devolves into yet another of von Trier’s actress-torture epics, the film does capture some real magic. BjÃ¶rk‘s Selma, tremulous, glowing, can find music even in factory noises. And ah, the number on the train!