December 26, 2006


I've seen just about all music biopics, like "Ray," "Walk the Line," "Great Balls of Fire," and the Temptations TV miniseries. Much of the appeal of the genre lies in all the personal connections between the future legends before they became famous. For example, the Supremes started out as a sort of ladies auxiliary of the Temptations, back when they were all in high school in Detroit.

The downside of music biopics is typically the lack of compelling drama. The young prodigy receives a quick lesson in how to sell a song from a crafty old mentor, then becomes a superstar by his or her early 20s, so there's not much left to do than show the ensuing struggle with "inner demons," which almost always turn out to be boring old drugs and/or alcohol (although Kevin Spacey's unfairly dismissed Bobby Darrin-biopic "Beyond the Sea" featured a bum ticker in the place of an addiction).

In contrast, "Dreamgirls" is the fictionalized version of the Supremes, and there's a lot to be said for making stuff up. Founding Supreme Florence Ballard's decline after Motown Svengali Berry Gordy makes the thinner-voiced (i.e., whiter-sounding) and skinnier Diana Ross the lead singer is a lot more compelling when the writers give Florence an Aretha Franklin-sized vocal talent. And it works even better because former American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson really does have Aretha-quality pipes.
By the way, you might be as confused as I was until I looked it up this morning about all the (well-deserved) hype about Jennifer Hudson being a sure thing for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. I kept asking "But didn't Jennifer Hudson win the Tony as Best Actress in the Broadway version of 'Dreamgirls' when it opened 25 years ago? Isn't she too old for this role by now?" It turns out that that Jennifer H. was the similarly talented (and large) Jennifer Holliday.

This is a near perfect example of Sailer's Law of Similar Initials Confusion, as illustrated by the doctors who didn't believe I could have Whooping Cough in 2002 because they confused the disease with the nearly extinct Whooping Crane, which is a bird. Similarly, we've recently discovered that seemingly few in power in Washington can tell the Shi'ites and the Sunnis apart (they're all S's to them). And, I suspect, an awful lot of Americans supported the Iraq invasion to get back at Iran for seizing the hostages in 1979.

Anyway, "Dreamgirls" is quite a success, but within the limitations of the post-"Cabaret" era of musicals. This is an era of great female singers, but not of great songwriters. Even "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" turns out to be more of a showcase for Holliday/Hudson than a song you'll hum on the way out of the movie theatre.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Your analysis of this being an era of female singers but not of songwriters is very correct. We have fine singers of both sexes, but songwriting of the calibre of Berlin, the Gershwins, Porter, Loesser, Kern, Arlen, Styne and above all Johnny Mercer is dead. No one in any genre of popular music in the English language is writing great songs, and precious few are even writing tolerable ones.

That's because songwriting is like surgery or combat flying: it's done very well by people who do it all the time, and it's a total immersion business. Those people weren't higher in IQ necessarily than people writing songs today, but no one sits at a piano and writes all the time anymore.

Sidebar: what do all the above people save Mercer and Porter, and most all the other names from the Great American Songbook except Carmichael and Jimmy Van Heusen, have in common? Make of that what you will, but it's statistically unavoidable.

Steve Sailer said...

In one list of the 10 most popular Christmas standards, five were written and two co-written by Jewish composers.

Anonymous said...

I'm not going to see this movie no matter what your review is. Why? 'Cause I'm a guy. ;)

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