Here’s everything you need to know about Dreamgirls in a nutshell: During the sold out screening I attended, the audience spontaneously burst into wild applause - twice - during a scene where former “American Idol” contestant Jennifer Hudson belts out the musical’s famous show-stopping number, “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” It’s kind of a cliché to say that a movie makes you want to cheer, but there’s no denying that Dreamgirls is just that type of energizing experience. That people did, in fact, cheer comes as no surprise.
Based on the popular Broadway musical, Dreamgirls is set in 1960’s Detroit where a trio of singers known as the “Dreamettes” takes the stage a local amateur night. The show’s more well-known headliner, soul maestro James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy), needs some female backup singers after his current ones grow tired of his sexual advances. Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a local car dealer with dreams of becoming a music big shot, steps forward and arranges for the Dreamettes to sing behind Early.
Taylor talks a great game. He’s got energy and ideas. He agrees to manage the girls and also supplants Early’s older manager, Marty Madison (Danny Glover), who balks at the idea of the singer tweaking his sound to reach a broader (read: white) audience. Eventually a romance blossoms between Taylor and the lead singer of the Dreamettes, Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), whose brother C.C. (Keith Robinson) writes most of their songs. But when the girls’ career blossoms – and starts to overtake Early’s – Taylor decides that the group would be better fronted by Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles), who is skinnier and possesses a less ethnically distinct voice. Third member Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) quietly accepts the decision, but Effie resents the fact that she’s being relegated to the background. Eventually she is replaced altogether, and Taylor guides the newly-christened “Deena Jones and the Dreams” to worldwide fame.
The film then follows the characters through the next eight or so years, as Effie struggles to get back on her feet, Deena deals with the pressures of fame, Early tries to gain mainstream popularity while holding onto his own identity, and Taylor creates a musical empire.
This film adaptation was written and directed by Bill Condon, who also made Gods and Monsters and Kinsey, and also wrote the screenplay for the Oscar-winning Chicago. (Director Rob Marshall got all the credit for that picture, but surely Condon’s contributions were of great importance.) He has a perfect grasp on the material, creating a realistic sense of the music scene as it evolved from the 60’s to the 70’s. Each of the movie’s musical numbers is staged with an abundance of style and energy. Adapting a musical for the screen can be challenging, because you lose that sense of immediacy. There’s a particular feeling of excitement that comes from having the performers singing and dancing live, right in front of you. Movies obviously can’t provide that same thrill, but there are tools they can use that offer a unique thrill of their own. Condon combines solid storytelling, top-notch production design, and stylish camera/editing techniques to make you think of Dreamgirls as less a movie and more a performance. (I think this partially accounts for why Hudson got applause from my crowd, as did Beyonce during her big number.)
If that’s all Dreamgirls was, it would still be an entertaining film. But there’s more to the story. One of the most interesting ideas here is the nature of “black” music and “white” music in the 60’s. There’s a great scene in which we hear a rousing piece of James Early soul, then the movie cuts directly to a slower, duller remake of the same song by a white teen pop artist. That simple moment says a lot about how music has traditionally been co-opted for different audiences. The screenplay has lots of other scenes illustrating the point. It also has much to say about the way fame changes you. Each of the main characters is somehow altered by the limelight, whether they stay in it permanently or only thrive in it briefly. The point seems to be that things change as soon as the world wants something from you. Friendships disintegrate, good intentions go sour, and steady romance is hard to hold onto.
I’m not sure the movie version of Dreamgirls could have been made before now. We’re got all the right stars to fill the roles, and they’re all at the right stages of their careers to play them. Consider, for example, Eddie Murphy. Forget “Party All the Time”; years spent impersonating soul singers on “Saturday Night Live” have given him credibility in playing one. Plus, it’s easy to buy into Murphy as a guy who waters down his unique and prodigious talent in an effort to appeal to a wider, more conservative audience. (Daddy Day Care or Haunted Mansion, anyone?) These things give him a weight in the role that brings the character much more vividly to life.
The same goes for everyone else. A stylish songstress who breaks out of a girl group to become a household name star? Why, that’s Beyonce! A guy who starts off in one field, then reveals an unexpectedly shrewd talent in other? Sounds like former “In Living Color” player turned platinum recording artist Jamie Foxx. Young, undiscovered talent who gets unfairly left behind while less talented peers soldier onward? It’s Jennifer Hudson’s story (up till now, at least). The fact that the cast members are so well suited for their roles and have the necessary musical talent adds tons of authenticity to Dreamgirls. Simply put, they make you believe this story.
Everyone’s fantastic, but Murphy and Hudson are the standouts. Let’s finish where we began, with Hudson belting out “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” The scene requires her to do more than sing dynamically. Having been familiar with the song but not with the musical, I never knew how it fit into the story. The tune comes at a moment where Effie is at her most vulnerable and most defiant simultaneously. It is her big statement, her assertion that she wants what she wants and she won’t back down from that. Hudson not only nails the song, but she also nails the emotions behind it. It’s one of those scenes that make you lean forward and pay attention because you know you’re seeing something really special.
I felt that way a lot during Dreamgirls. This is a “big” movie. It has big stars, big musical numbers, and big entertainment. There’s a wonderful sense of spectacle to the film. On Broadway, it’s okay for an appreciative audience to stand up and yell “bravo” at the end of a performance. That doesn’t really work at a movie theater since no one involved in the making of the film can hear you. However, that doesn’t diminish the fact that standing up and yelling “bravo” is exactly what I felt like doing when the end credits rolled.
( out of four)
Dreamgirls is rated PG-13 for language, some sexuality and drug content. The running time is 2 hours and 11 minutes.
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