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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

 

Dreamgirls On CD: A Side-By-Side Comparison

While I wait around to be the very last blogger on the planet to get invited to a preview screening of Dreamgirls (what am I, chopped liver? I write about your dang movie all year, and you can't sneak a sister into a press screening?), I spent the day listening to my sparkly new copy of the Deluxe Edition of the motion picture soundtrack. And it is very, very good. Two or three "wow" moments, and a half-dozen jawdroppers. Very, very good indeed.

How does it compare to the other seminal recordings of this score? My immediate reaction is that it's better than the 1982 Broadway Cast Recording (which had a notoriously choppy production), but not as good as the 2001 Actors Fund Concert Recording. That live event, which featured Audra McDonald, Heather Headley, Lillias White, Norm Lewis, Billy Porter, Darius de Haas and an all-star Broadway menagerie, restored both the vibrancy and the text to the show, building on the once-in-a-lifetime electricity and the extraordinary talent on display. The palpable energy of the live concert setting is tough to beat, especially by a structured movie score. (I also need to say -- at the expense of Beyonce Knowles fans catching me in a dark alley somewhere -- that there's an emotional maturity to McDonald's reading of Deena that totally eludes Beyonce.)

The most important question for fans -- how is Jennifer Hudson? -- is that she's better than you ever thought she would be. She's clearly studied her predecessor, Jennifer Holliday, closely; she is the one, after all, who made the role of Effie iconic. While paying homage to some of the vocal runs and fierce textures of the earlier performance, Hudson manages to find her own strength in the music. By the end of the disc, she's given an impressive performance, nuanced and seemingly effortless.

The sound quality on the new disc is superb, and most of the performers acquit themselves nicely. You're expecting, of course, that Hudson, Beyonce and Jamie Foxx sing well...but Anika Noni Rose is sublime too, and Eddie Murphy is nothing short of a revelation. (One of the great treats is an appearance by Loretta Devine, the original Lorell on Broadway, warbling through the jazzy "I Miss You Old Friend.")

If there is a downside, it is that the four new songs -- written especially for the movie -- are significantly weaker than the original tracks. You're probably already familiar with "Listen", the utterly generic ballad written for Beyonce, which will undoubtedly receive an Oscar nomination; it's too bad that it lacks the gritty heart that the rest of the disc serves in spades. (Note to Beyonce: screaming at the end is really beneath you, dear.) Elsewhere, the Jackson 5 knockoff "Perfect World" and the plodding "Love You I Do" wear their derivative artificiality like a second skin. Perhaps the tracks were needed to make the dramatic shift from stage to screen, but on CD they are pimples on an otherwise flawless surface. (On the deluxe edition, there's also a very generic dance mix of "And I Am Telling You", which will undoubtedly fill gay dancefloors everywhere, despite its lifeless thudding and unimaginative construction.)

So which recording should you buy? All three, ideally...you can't do without Holliday's "And I Am Telling You...", White's "I Am Changing", or Hudson's "Finale". But if you do have to choose, we'd say: see the movie, buy the concert on CD, and download the biggies from iTunes.

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