Director : Bill Condon
Screenplay : Bill Condon (based on the musical by Tom Eyen)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Jamie Foxx (Curtis Taylor, Jr.), Beyoncé Knowles (Deena Jones), Eddie Murphy (James “Thunder” Early), Danny Glover (Marty Madison), Jennifer Hudson (Effie White), Anika Noni Rose (Lorrell Robinson), Keith Robinson (C.C. White), Sharon Leal (Michelle Morris), Hinton Battle (Wayne), Mariah I. Wilson (Magic)
Loosely based on the story of The Supremes’s astronomical rise to musical superstardom during the turbulent 1960s under the auspices of Motown’s Berry Gordon, Dreamgirls was a hit Broadway musical in 1981, winning a plethora of Tony Awards and running for 1,522 performances. The vaguely scandalous combination of its barely disguised real-life celebrity dirt and canny mix of blues, R&B, and showtunes was a potent combination, but 25 years later it feels a bit stale in its cinematic incarnation by Bill Condon.
Part of this is not so much the fault of the material as it is the times in which that material is being mounted. Our scandal-rag-fueled culture of infotainment is so awash in news about celebrity in-fighting, weddings and breakups, and scandalous behavior that the need to disguise anything with fake names (even ones that sound like their real-life doppelgangers) has a faint aura of quaintness. The rise and fall and rise again of divas is such a cliché at this point that it’s difficult to muster much enthusiasm for another ride. The basic story’s unending passage through the culture grinder has made it trite--drama on the level of VH-1 Behind the Music and American Idol. Thus, it should come as no surprise that an American Idol reject, 25-year-old Jennifer Hudson, is one of the stars of Dreamgirls, although the real irony is that she is the movie’s best asset, far outshining the likes of Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx and musical superstar Beyoncé Knowles, whose own problems outshining the other members of her former girl group Destiny’s Child create an appropriate parallel with the narrative in Dreamgirls.
Dreamgirls charts the ups and downs of a fictional R&B group from Chicago originally knows as The Dreamettes. They get their first break when they are hired to sing backup for Jimmy “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy), a James Brown-esque soul singer who is constantly complaining that other singers are stealing his moves and looks (whether this is true or not is left vague). When The Dreamettes get picked up by aspiring music mogul Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), lead singer Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) is dumped for the less talented, but more conventionally beautiful and thinner Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles). The underlying goal is for the group to “cross over,” that is, make them more accessible to mainstream white audiences. Their blackness needs to be downplayed, hence the need to replace big-voiced, big-boned, darker-skinned Effie with the all-around lighter Deena (no wonder Diana Ross, Deena’s real-life counterpart, reportedly refused to see the musical when it debuted on Broadway).
Like most rise-and-fall stories, Dreamgirls tries to do too much with too many characters, all of whom are on various arcs up or down. Each character has a counterpart who heads in the opposite direction, which is meant to suggest the price of success, but mostly serves to overwhelm the production. Thus, as Curtis Taylor Jr. soars to the top of the music scene, former talent manager Marty Madison (Danny Glover) gets kicked to the curb. As Deena becomes a pop sensation, Effie ends up in the welfare office. As the Dreamettes (later known as The Dreams) reach the top of the charts with pop and disco, Jimmy Early and his wailing soul sound bottom out in booze and heroin. And so and so forth.
All of this would work better if the film had developed a stronger narrative flow, but writer/director Bill Condon (Kinsey, Gods and Monsters) is forced again and again to resort to montages and the overused visual gimmick of an audition morphing into a full-fledged performance via a slow 360-degree spin of the camera. Dreamgirls feels far too often like a collection of scenes, rather than the driving narrative it should be. There are parts where the story comes to pulsating, vibrant life, especially when Effie belts the show-stopping number “And I Am Telling You” directly to Curtis, a legendary song that conveys as much about her basic desire for love as it does about her unwillingness to be removed from the group.
Hudson’s performance here is electric, literally trembling with emotion, which mostly serves to highlight how disappointing the other performances are. Not only is Beyoncé cast above her head, but Foxx is surprisingly ineffective as the smooth charmer and ruthless businessman (he displayed far more moxy singing backup for Kanye West’s “Gold Digger”). As the fading Jimmy Early, Eddie Murphy has some of the film’s most effectively dramatic moments (witness the pain on his face when his attempt at a comeback is casually squashed by Curtis), but it’s hard to watch his musical performances and not see them as extensions of his James Brown impersonations from his Saturday Night Live days.
Condon wisely keeps the production relative modest by big-budget musical standards. He gives us plenty of sweeping crane shots and appropriately lavish production numbers, but it never feels bloated or outrageous ala Joel Schumacher’s ridiculously overproduced The Phantom of the Opera (2004). The film looks great, which unfortunately emphasizes how little genuine emotion is in it. Condon is not afraid to let the characters sing their dialogue to each other--something Rob Marshall’s Chicago (2002) (for which Condon wrote the screenplay) avoided by staging all the musical sequences as fantasies--and Dreamgirls is better for it because it provides its only emotional impact. In fact, it is hard to imagine anyone being able to convey Effie’s indignity outside of song. Yet, whatever boldness Condon brings to the project is ultimately sunk by its disappointing lack of human drama in favor of by-the-numbers rise-and-fall theatrics.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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