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Dreamgirls and Inland Empire: Performance Art

Where did their love go?  The Dreams, before the fall (Photo by David James)

Where did their love go? The Dreams, before the fall (Photo by David James)

It is said that a great actor or actress can “bring down the house,” but I can’t recall the last time, before I saw (and heard) the 25-year-old American Idol finalist Jennifer Hudson in the film version of the 1981 Broadway musical Dreamgirls, I truly feared for the architectural stability of a movie theater. When Hudson, who is making her film debut, sings the end-of-first-act showstopper “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” it’s as if some spiritual force has taken hold of her entire being: Her body trembles with each passing note, her wide brown eyes seem to speak the lyrics before they arrive at her lips, and the voice that erupts out of her hardly sounds human — it’s the kind of thunderous, soul-stirring bellow that a wronged goddess might make upon learning that she had been betrayed for a mere mortal. And so she has. At that moment in the film, Hudson, who plays one member of a 1960s all-girl R&B trio called the Dreams, is confronting her manager/ex-lover (Jamie Foxx) over his decision to oust her from the group in favor of a less gifted, less temperamental and less full-figured replacement. But really, she’s singing about her need to be loved — not just by anyone, but by the very man who has callously betrayed her. And so acute is her agony that mere words aren’t enough to express it. Like all of the most joyous and tragic moments in movie musicals, it can only be sung.

With a star turn like that at its center, a movie doesn’t need too much more, but Dreamgirls has plenty to go around. Its sense of showmanship is overflowing, from the opening talent-contest revue, in which Detroit teenagers Deena (Beyoncé Knowles), Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) and Effie (Hudson) are picked to sing backup for the glitter-outfitted soul man James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy), through to their farewell concert as the Dreams a decade later. The director, Bill Condon, who also adapted Dreamgirls for the screen, has the temperament of a vaudeville entertainer — he wants to give you your money’s worth and then some.

Most, I suspect, will go home happy. Arriving in a renaissance period for the big-budget Hollywood musical, Dreamgirls is by far the best of a crop that includes the Oscar-winning Chicago, for which Condon himself penned the script. Among that picture’s many failings, it seemed vaguely embarrassed to even be a musical in the first place, relegating its production numbers to fantasy sequences set inside its characters’ heads and otherwise making sure to give the audience fair warning: “Okay. Don’t be frightened. We’re going to sing now.” Dreamgirls, despite being similarly set in a theatrical milieu, feels no such compunction. Its characters don’t just sing directly to one another, in the real world, but when they do, what they’re singing about actually moves the story forward.

So it pains me to say that, on some crucial level, Dreamgirls falls short of expectations — ours and those of the people who made it. Largely, the source material is at fault: Written by Tom Eyen (with music by Henry Krieger) and staged by the legendary director-choreographer Michael Bennett, the Broadway version of Dreamgirls drew much attention for its thinly veiled fictionalization of the rise of Berry Gordy Jr.’s Motown Records and the behind-the-scenes drama of Gordy’s girl-group phenom, the Supremes. Even today, it’s easy to see Foxx’s cool, calculating impresario Curtis Taylor Jr. as a transparent Gordy surrogate, Knowles’ Deena as the comely Diana Ross superstar and Hudson’s Effie as the doomed Florence Ballard (the Supremes founder and original Supremes lead singer, who slid into depression and alcoholism). By now, though, so much of Dreamgirls’ real estate has been overdeveloped by a rash of Broadway and big-screen music biographies (Ray, Walk the Line, Jersey Boys) that it’s tough to get too worked up over yet more scenes of naive young vocalists hearing their song on the radio for the first time, encountering the ugly face of racism and discovering that fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And as both play and film, Dreamgirls takes a kid-gloves approach to its most intriguing subject: the way that black music moguls like Gordy watered down grinding soul rhythms with vanilla pop melodies in the name of “crossing over” black artists to the pop charts. (Even Eyen and Krieger aren’t immune from that tendency: For every “And I Am Telling You . . . ,” they give us an insipid slow jam like “Family,” whose cloying refrain “We are family/Like a giant tree/Branching out toward the sky” makes you think kindly upon deforestation.)

But the right combination of elements can make you forget that a movie falls short of the greatness to which it aspires, and Dreamgirls has them. The picture is very cannily cast: Murphy as a onetime legend whose best moves have been lifted by younger performers; Knowles as the reluctant diva searching for some meaning amid the stardust; and Hudson, who knows as surely as anyone what it means to get voted off the island. And Dreamgirls proves more absorbing in its second half, when Effie comes to dominate the story and when the movie itself becomes less about the path to stardom and more about what happens after you’ve made it (or haven’t). That’s also when Condon, who occasionally seems overwhelmed by the sheer bigness of the production, stops trying to wow us with one high-energy production number after another and recaptures, in a few key scenes (including “And I Am Telling You . . .” and the tender “When I First Saw You,” sung by Foxx to Knowles), the exquisite intimacy of his two nonmusical biopics, Kinsey and Gods and Monsters. In moments like those, you realize that Condon grasps what has eluded most of his musical-making contemporaries: Anyone can give us the old razzle-dazzle, but what makes a movie musical soar is nothing more or less than the quiet exhilaration of two individuals on the screen, enraptured by song.

For the first 10 days of its release, Dreamgirls will play exclusively in three specially selected theaters in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco — an old-fashioned “road show” engagement complete with a commemorative color program and a steep $25 ticket price. Meanwhile, over in the movie theater of my imagination, it will be running all season on a double bill with David Lynch’s Inland Empire, another musical of sorts (complete with a chorus line of lip-synching Polish prostitutes) that is, at least partly, a meditation on the art of performance. Beyond that, there’s not too much I feel I can — or should — say in the specific about the latest effort by America’s foremost abstract-expressionist filmmaker, except that it is Lynch’s most experimental endeavor in the 30 years since Eraserhead, that it will do nothing to draw new fans to the director’s work and that, after two viewings, I cannot wait to see it again.

Lynch has made several movies (including The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet and The Straight Story) that unfold along a relatively unbent path, but Inland Empire is one of those, like the widely misunderstood Twin Peaks prequel, Fire Walk With Me, that resists all efforts to “explain” it — and the more we try, the more it resists, like a dream that dissipates upon waking. Some people will disparage the film for that very reason, in the way that some look at a Jackson Pollock and think, “My 5-year-old could have painted that.” Others will rack their brains, trying to sift reality from fantasy. But the thrill of Inland Empire lies, I think, in surrendering yourself to its epic weirdness, falling under its spell and allowing Lynch to gradually lead you back into the light.

Set between Los Angeles, Poland and someplace that may or may not be Pomona, Inland Empire concerns a faded Hollywood actress, Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), whose hopes for a comeback are pegged on the role of “Susan Blue” in a movie called On High in Blue Tomorrows, which, judging from our fleeting glimpses of it, lies somewhere between a Tennessee Williams Southern gothic and one of Lynch’s own subconscious safaris. This much we do know, courtesy of Blue Tomorrows’ grandiloquent director, Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons): The movie, which is based on a Polish Gypsy folktale, was partly filmed once before, in Germany, until the lead actors “discovered something inside the story” and paid for that discovery with their lives. In due course, Nikki too seems to uncover something secret and possibly sinister lurking beneath the surface of her latest role. After venturing into a dark corner of the sound stage and walking through a prop doorway that shouldn’t lead anywhere, she seemingly vanishes into the ether. Or perhaps she crosses over to the other side of the looking glass. Or maybe, as great actors are wont to do, she merely disappears into character.

Over the three hallucinatory hours that ensue, we follow Nikki — or is it Susan? — through various guises that include a housewife in an economically devastated factory town; that same woman (so it seems) on the streets of Poland, in midwinter, pursued by some nefarious underworld types; and, finally, a transient on Hollywood Boulevard, literally spilling her guts out upon the hallowed Walk of Fame. As in most Lynch movies, there’s also an abundance of dimly lit corridors and short-circuiting light bulbs, many of them located in an ornate Lodz hotel, where a sad young woman (Karolina Gruszka, billed in the credits as “Lost Girl”) gazes intently at a television screen, and where one room — a literal rabbit hole to complement the movie’s many figurative ones — opens onto the set of a sitcom starring a cast of 6-foot-tall leporids. Needless to say, by the time, late in Inland Empire, that a battered and bruised Nikki/Susan tells a Kafkaesque interrogator, “I don’t know what happened first, and it’s kind of laid a mind fuck on me,” you’ll have a fairly good idea of what she’s talking about.

The bunny bits, which first appeared as part of a nine-episode series produced by Lynch for his ­davidlynch.com Web site back in 2002, were the genesis of Inland Empire, and they speak to the unusual nature of the entire project. As with Eraserhead, Lynch made Inland piecemeal over several years, on low-res digital video, shooting new scenes whenever he had the inspiration — a way of working, guided by intuition and instinct, and impervious to the demands of producers, executives and audiences, that most artists (especially painters) take for granted, but which remains virtually unknown to those in the film industry. That alone does not make Inland Empire great, or even good. What does is the fierce lack of compromise in Lynch’s vision and the extraordinary degree of commitment he draws from his collaborators — especially Dern, who plays her role(s) with the kind of naked abandon that Naomi Watts brought to her ill-fated starlet in Mulholland Dr., and who, a few months shy of her own 40th birthday, shows acute sensitivity to Nikki Grace’s fear of a premature Hollywood death.

Lynch, who has so often centered films on the blurring of identity, seems awestruck by the ability of actors to transform themselves on a dime, and by the real and imaginary places they must go to in order to do that. (That, and not the sprawling suburbia located directly east of Los Angeles, is the true Inland Empire.) Whether or not we fully understand anything more about the movie, it’s clear that Lynch is ruminating, in a profound and deeply personal way, on that ineffable urge that drives actors to act, directors to direct and audiences to watch, no matter the generally inverse ratio of risk to reward. Inland Empire begins with the flicker of a projector’s lamp and ends up in a cinema, where Nikki/Susan sees her own image splayed large across the screen. In between, it spins a Tinseltown fable as dark and dissonant as any by Nathanael West or Horace McCoy, about how and why we are all drawn to that pulsating light, like moths to the flame and buzzards to the kill.

DREAMGIRLS | Written and directed by BILL CONDON, based on the original Broadway production with book and lyrics by TOM EYEN and music by HENRY KRIEGER | Produced by LAURENCE MARK | Released by Paramount Pictures | ArcLight

INLAND EMPIRE | Written and directed by DAVID LYNCH | Produced by MARY SWEENEY and LYNCH | Released by 518 Media | Sunset 5 and Playhouse 7