Dreams A Go-Go
Motown movie musical has it all.
BY JASON BLAIR
DREAMGIRLS: Directed by Bill Condon. Written by Condon (screenplay) and Tom Eyen (book). Cinematography, Tobias A. Schliessler. Starring Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover and Jennifer Hudson. Paramount Pictures and DreamWorks SKG, 2007. PG-13. 131 minutes.
Broadway musicals adapted by Hollywood tend to be very good (Grease, Chicago) or very bad (A Chorus Line, The Phantom of the Opera). When you consider the built-in audience of a Broadway hit, which might run for more than a decade, extreme opinions of an adaptation aren’t surprising. And given the nature of Broadway productions — the complex staging, lighting and choreography involved — a failure is apt to be a big failure, while a success gets proclaimed an instant classic.
|Deena (Beyoncé Knowles), Effie (Jennifer Hudson) and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) in Dreamgirls|
Whether it’s an instant classic is debatable, but Dreamgirls is an overwhelming success. Adapted from the 1981 musical, which itself was inspired by the success of The Supremes, Dreamgirls is a non-stop musical thrill ride from early R&B to disco. But this isn’t your father’s musical: Here, swirling cameras create euphoric dance sequences while, during critical plot points, spoken dialogue and singing alternate. Unlike Grease or even Chicago, the songs in Dreamgirls aren’t based in narrative-puncturing fantasy, à la “Beauty School Dropout.” In Dreamgirls, the lyrical content directly addresses and advances the story. The more integrated music gives Dreamgirls a seamless feel.
Dreamgirls is the story of Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a car salesman who rises to fame as the manager of James Early (Eddie Murphy) and his backup talent, the Dreamettes. For a short time, they’re a modestly successful musical family. But after James gyrates wickedly in front of a stunned white audience — this is, after all, the early ’60s — Curtis renames the girls the Dreams in order to promote them on their own. It’s one of many cutthroat moves by Curtis, whom Foxx underplays as a villain with almost no inner conflict. Curtis is a force that lacks vigor. Murphy, on the other hand, gives his best performance ever. After 25 years of hit-and-miss comedy, Eddie Murphy is finally a great supporting actor.
The central conflict of the film emerges when Curtis replaces Effie (Jennifer Hudson), the established lead vocalist, with Deena (Beyoncé Knowles). Deena, younger and prettier than Effie, can’t sing like Effie can, so Effie reluctantly disembarks. A run of unprecedented success follows, but not without a price. Curtis, resembling an Ike Turner-ish control freak, gradually pushes Deena (now his wife) away. Knowles is graceful and nuanced here, seeming comfortable in every scene. But the film belongs to Hudson, the former American Idol runner-up, whose arrival (Dreamgirls is her first film) is already being compared to that of Streisand and Midler, two legends who also arrived fully formed.
What Dreamgirls lacks, if anything, is consistency of energy and pace. After an efficient, up-tempo start, the film breezes through the last five years of the Dreams’ remarkable career. Along the way, director Condon (Gods and Monsters) tries to establish a context of social upheaval, but the acknowledgement of riots, MLK and racial disharmony feels tacked on to give the story weight. Dreamgirls isn’t built to carry that load: Weightlessness, the sheer joy of performing, is the natural state of this musical fantasia. It’s the celluloid version of opening a bottle of champagne. While Curtis’s ambition and pride cost them all dearly, the film is about how passion makes up for talent, and how very little is beyond forgiveness.