Reviews

agoDreamgirls (2006)

Iquo B. Essien

An undeniably fun ride, albeit with too much restraint here, too over-the-top there.


Dreamgirls

Director: Bill Condon
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover, Anika Noni Rose, Jennifer Hudson, Keith Robinson
Distributor: DreamWorks
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Paramount
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2007-05-01
Website
Trailer

Not since The Wiz has a major Hollywood studio seen fit to greenlight an all-black musical; but last year, both Idlewild and Dreamgirls hit the big screen. Had the former not flopped, 2006 might have been dubbed the “Year of the Black Movie Musical”. Dreamgirls tells the rags-to-riches story of a trio of black female soul singers crossing over to the pop charts in the early '60s. Musicals are a tough sell these days; but if there was a musical that could succeed, this is it.

Chicago screenwriter Bill Condon, DreamWorks, and Paramount Pictures deliver a film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical with a star-studded cast: Grammy winner Beyoncé Knowles, Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx, Golden Globe winner Eddie Murphy, Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose, and newcomer Jennifer Hudson, who won an Academy Award for her breakout performance.

The Dreamettes start out as three girls – Deena Jones (Knowles) has the image, Effie White (Hudson) has the voice, and Lorrell Robinson (Rose) has the charm – who get a big break singing backup for James "Thunder" Early (Murphy) after losing a local talent competition. In their rise to success, Lorrell has an ongoing affair with Early, while Effie and manager Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Foxx) have a romance, though rumors abound of his side-fling with Deena. The group gets a shot at solo success as The Dreams, but tensions rise when Effie's brother C.C. (Keith Robinson) and Curtis decide that Deena will sing lead instead of Effie. The rift leads to Effie’s dismissal and replacement, but not before she ends up pregnant with Curtis’s baby.

The Dreams go on to success as Curtis marries Deena and launches her career into superstardom, while Effie ends up a destitute, single mother struggling to survive as a lounge singer. By the end of The Dreams’ meteoric rise to fame, Deena leaves Curtis and Early dies of drug overdose, though the film ends on a positive note, with Effie claiming the rights to a hit pop single and the group reuniting for a final performance.

Dreamgirls has the goods and the glory; nattily dressed, good-looking people singing and dancing to the tune of eight Oscar nominations and box office success. But does it live up to the hype? From the costumes to the choreography and score, it's vibrant and entertaining. What could have easily been a bawdy vaudeville imitation of the Broadway hit stands on its own as a celebration of black song and dance.

Jamie Foxx plays a convincing entertainment mogul and villain with his slick suits, coiffed hair, and heartless ways. His performance is solid, owing to his firsthand experience working with music executives. His recording career also lends itself to a great voice that, matched with his acting talent, makes Curtis’ struggles believable as portrayed through song.

Eddie Murphy is exceptional as Early – a character loosely modeled on the late James Brown – as evidenced by his Oscar nomination. This is a role he was born to play, harkening back to his Saturday Night Live days (“James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub”) and his brief recording career with a hit single (“Party All the Time”). It is great to see Eddie larger than life – without the 200-pound fat suit. His song and dance act is stellar, topped off with his uncanny embodiment of a man with nothing and everything to lose in the business. Plus, Eddie adds a refreshing hint of comedy to his portrayal, minus the shtick.

About the only thing better than Eddie is Effie, or rather, the talented Jennifer Hudson. She steals scenes with a natural acting ability, mesmerizing audiences with her rich, soulful voice. With Hudson’s rendition of “And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going”, a star was born, and her grace in accepting her newfound fame tells us she is here to stay.

And though less hype has been made of Anika Noni Rose’s performance, her subtle delivery, sweet voice, and Broadway cred add the final touch of polish to this film, keeping it from seeming too much like a Hollywood production. The cameos by Loretta Divine (from the Broadway original), John Lithgow, and Ken Page also help in this regard.

But when you strip away the glitz and glamour, the film – most notably its writing and lead – is found wanting. Packing enough star power to light up Times Square, Foxx and Murphy alone can carry their own films. Condon does not deliver on the script.

The actors, particularly Jamie Foxx, were held back by the dialogue, with little leeway to display their potential. It often felt like they should be saying or doing something more than they were. For the novice, like Hudson, without an understanding of the restraint required by the form and genre, it was easy to outdo everybody else, particularly the lead.

Though billed as lead actress and given a Golden Globe nod, Beyoncé is carried by the film’s strong supporting cast, including Danny Glover, as Early’s manager Marty Madison. Some may be surprised to learn that she was given a screen test after she contacted producers about playing the lead. They were not sure that she could tone down her sultry stage presence and voice to play the wide-eyed, kittenish Deena. To prepare for the test, Beyoncé studied dance moves, bought vintage clothing, and hired her own hair and makeup team, delivering a solid performance.

But for all her good intentions, Beyoncé remains a singer and not an actress – particularly in her scene opposite Johns Lithgow and Krasinki, in which she comes off as pretending to be, rather than actually being, a grown woman striking out on her own. It is not for lack of effort that Beyoncé flounders – in fact, if you watch closely, you may notice how hard she is trying – but rather limited acting and life experience. Most actors draw from life’s hardships and struggles, but too many years in the limelight, from such a young age, may have permanently disconnected her from the very grit required to play a serious role. It’s not enough to imitate Diana Ross if she cannot, on a basic level, identify with her.

Hudson easily steals the show, leading one to wonder what other actresses may have been a better lead against her supporting role. Nevertheless, Beyoncé delivers her signature stunning vocals on “Listen”, one of the film’s original songs. And that may, together with the other performances, be enough to redeem her acting and the film. If you suspend your disbelief, it can even be a fun ride.

The two-disc DVD includes several special features such as a behind-the-scenes documentary, original auditions, an image gallery, Beyoncé's "Listen" music video, and an in-depth look at the film's fashions by costume designer Sharen Davis. The "Building the Dream" documentary is fascinating, featuring cast and crew interviews, as well as historical background on the original Broadway production.

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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