A film review by Craig J. Koban
2006, PG-13, 130 mins.
Deena Jones: Beyonce Knowles / Curtis Taylor Jr.: Jamie Foxx
/ James "Thunder" Early: Eddie Murphy / Effie White: Jennifer Hudson
/ Lorrell Robinson: Anika Noni Rose / C.C. White: Keith Robinson
/ Wayne: Hinton Battle / Michelle: Sharon Leal / Marty: Danny Glover Directed by Bill Condon / Written by Condon and Tom Eyen
Deena Jones: Beyonce Knowles / Curtis Taylor Jr.: Jamie Foxx / James "Thunder" Early: Eddie Murphy / Effie White: Jennifer Hudson / Lorrell Robinson: Anika Noni Rose / C.C. White: Keith Robinson / Wayne: Hinton Battle / Michelle: Sharon Leal / Marty: Danny Glover
Directed by Bill Condon / Written by Condon and Tom Eyen
In our age of pessimism and nihilism in the movies, it’s somewhat gratifying to see that films like DREAMGIRLS still get made. Like a breath of proverbial fresh air, Bill Condon’s adaptation of the original 1981 Broadway smash does what every great movie musical should do: it endears and entertains with it’s flashy exuberance, boisterous song and dance numbers, and overwhelmingly goes out of its way to be a fun and pleasurable romp.
More importantly, it’s a musical that does one thing absolutely right – it transports the viewer. DREAMGIRLS works magnificently as a film to be experienced more than watched. I think that is the overall key to the classic films of the genre. They are primarily concerned with showmanship, vitality, and energy. DREAMGIRLS has all of those qualities.
It seemed that we were in a relative re-emergence of the movie musical during the last seven years. When MOULIN ROUGE came out in 2001 (and amassed several Oscar nominations, including Best Picture), it gave a newfound respect to the then dead film genre. Then came CHICAGO the following year and – astoundingly – it went on to be the first musical to win Best Picture since the early seventies. Despite the fact that CHICAGO was not half the film that ROUGE was (and – in my humble opinion – one of the most undeserving Best Picture winners of the last twenty years), the film looked like it was going to revive the musical back in full form.
Well, that never really happened.
There were some false starts in the wake of CHICAGO's success (2004’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was decent, but not a home run), as well as some abysmal failures (like the categorically awful RENT from last year), and some odd, yet wickedly entertaining, entries (2005’s THE PRODUCERS, (probably marked the first film remake of a remake of a remake). Now comes Dreamgirls, which is the finest musical since MOULIN ROUGE and may have the power to truly rekondle and jumpstart the often-staling genre for good.
Bill Condon, a fine filmmaker (he made the fascinating KINSEY in 2004 and the equally compelling GODS AND MONSTERS in 1998), is no stranger to musicals. He wrote CHICAGO and has gone on record to say that DREAMGIRLS was his dream project since he saw the opening night performance of it at the Imperial Theatre in New York in 1981. When the original stage production became hugely successful (it ran for over 1500 performances), several attempts were made to bring it to the big screen. In the late 80’s Whitney Huston was attached to headline the film and in the early 1990’s Joel Schumacher was set to direct. Once CHICAGO was a smash Condon swooped in and DREAMGIRLS finally got the big screen treatment many believed it deserved.
DREAMGIRLS may look superficially like it’s an autobiographical look at the rise of The Supremes (Mary Wilson, founding member of that trio, said that the events in the musical were “closer to truth” than many think). Truth be told, it focuses squarely on an African American diva group called “The Dreams” through the 1960’s and 1970’s. Beyond that, DREAMGIRLS is not just a glossy and colorful film with show-stopping songs; it actually has something legitimate to say about the history of Motown and the evolution of American R&B music over the last half a century.
Clearly, DREAMGIRLS is not fresh in terms of its overall story arc (that of a group of impressionable young entertainers that hope to achieve fame and let their future success lead them down a deep, dark chasm of immorality), but the subject matter behind the story is kind of fascinating and revealing. DREAMGIRLS is one of those rare musicals that is both African-centric and tells a tale of the music industry from the marginalized point of view. There are some cold truths along the way, like how the white establishment trumps obvious vocal talent for the sake of selling more albums the white masses.
There is one vile little scene in the film where one song by a famous black singer affectionately called “Cadillac Car” has all of its soul and luster ripped out of it by a generic, Pat Boone-type vocalist. The song is not so much appropriated by the establishment as much as it is robbed and abused. American Bandstand is not ready for the bold and lively vocals of African-America R&B stars, so producers take their songs and vanilla-ize it for the teen crowd. There is a sad undercurrent to the history portrayed behind DREAMGIRLS. Not only does its characters make ethically questionable decisions to make it to the top, some of them are forced to dial down their vocal gifts to appease a world that is not ready (or willing) to appreciate their music. In a small way, DREAMGIRLS deals a lot with cultural denigration. Themes like this are surprising for a musical, which is why the film resonates deeper.
The film spans over twenty years and concerns itself largely with the Detroit-based trio originally called “The Dreamettes.” They include the luminous Deena (the utterly gorgeous Beyonce Knowles), the timid and mild mannered Lorrell (the plucky ad cute Anika Noni Rose) and the brash and rowdy Effie (in a scenery chewing, star making performance by Jennifer Hudson). They also have a man behind the curtain, so to speak, in the form of Effie’s Brother, C.C. (Keith Robinson) who writes the trio’s songs. The girls have all of the goods to make it to the top, but seem to have a difficult time getting noticed.
One night they enter a talent show (shown in the film’s remarkably bouncy and spirited opening scene) and they are so good that they come under the attention of Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx). Curtis comes across as being a “player,” but he has about as much experience as the ladies themselves (he’s a car salesman on the side). Curtis has a dilemma early on when he needs to desperately find a back-up singer to soul legend and R&B icon James “Thunder” Early (the brilliantly wacky and jovial Eddie Murphy, absolutely channeling the late, great James Brown as if he was on speed). Early has a penchant for three things in life: booze, drugs, and the ladies, the latter he especially loves (there is a humorous scene where he flirts with a woman and she asks if he’s married, to which he matter-of-factly responds, “Baby, everyone knows that Jimmy is married!").
Curtis has an epiphany and decides to approach the trio and ask them if they would like the opportunity to sing backup to Early and instantly jumpstart their careers. The girls jump at the chance…except Effie. She’s the pride-filled pragmatist of the group. She is their lead singer and has little desire to play second fiddle to anyone. Curtis – being a suave and charismatic person – wins over Effie by appealing to her talent and sassiness. She reluctantly agrees and within no time the group becomes so popular that they reach a point where going out on their own is tangible.
There are some roadblocks along the way. Firstly, Early has some difficulty making it on his own, especially when he is basically forced to remove the latent sexual energy and soul from his animated vocal performances to appease a broader demographic. He dials down his work so much that his past work bares little resemblance to his current songs. James soon begins to emotionally plummet and get hooked on drugs. Also, as the girls are about to make a bid for the top of the charts. Curtis nails Effie with a bombshell: Deena will now be lead singer and she will be delegated to backup. Why? Well, mostly because Effie is plump and not nearly the glamorous super model-type that Deena is. Deena severely has less vocal range than Effie, and every one knows it.
Effie pitifully lashes out – in one of the film’s more potent scenes - to Curtis, “Well, what am I supposed to do? Deena's beautiful, and she's always been beautiful... but I've got the voice, Curtis! I've got the voice! You can't put me in back; you just can't!" The scene then leads to DREAMGIRLS’ triumphant and rousing "And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” where Jennifer Hudson screams out to the world to forget that she was once an American Idol contestant and instead see her as a fully realized talent with remarkable range. Her performance in the number towers over anything else in the film. Hudson is so assured and passionate as Effie; she is the soul of the film and it sure will be tough for the Academy to forget about her come Oscar time.
This musical number, as well as several others (mostly by Murphy) has all of the wanton extravagance and spunk that you would come to expect from a musical, but the film’s messages and hurtful themes stand out even more. As the 1960’s march on, during the which time the Civil Rights movement is in full throttle, we see the quick rise of The Dreams and especially Deena, who becomes so huge that she gets movie offers (she is the works to do a big screen musical of CLEOPATRA) and she has since married Curtis, who dumped Effie to shack up with her.
Effie herself is blacklisted from the group and lives a life of poverty while her former soul-sisters achieve fame and fortune. Curtis becomes a larger-than-life figure as well, becoming the head of his own record label. If anything, the film really does not do a satisfying job of explaining Curtis' descent from being a likeable figurehead to a mean-spirited, Ike Turner-inspired SOB. The film sort of hammers home the sentiment with his character in an overtly telegraphed manner – that quick success can possess you and turn you into something hateful. Foxx’s performance in the film is also its other weak point. He’s good at playing a slimy and dictatorial manager, but he seems awkward and wooden in the song numbers, as if he does not want to be there.
The rest of the cast fares far better. Beyonce Knowles has the majestic singing pipes to match her beauty, but Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy completely steal DREAMGIRLS’ thunder. A cursory view of Murphy’s performance here will have many SNL fans hearken back to his famous skits playing James Brown, but Murphy’s work here is such a go-for-broke, dynamic, and limitlessly crazed and wide-eyed turn that its hard not to admire his boundless enthusiasm and charm despite his character’s murky motives. Murphy is pure, funk-filled, hip shaking, toe tapping adrenaline and he's a larger than life presence that is alive every moment he’s on screen. Hudson’s breakout performance as the sad and beleaguered Effie is a revelation. She beat out 781 other actresses for the role and auditioned for over six months for the part. He work is a dazzling triumph and forcefully dominates the film. When she tearfully belts out "And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” its one of the great scenes of heartfelt pain and pathos ever in a musical.
Bill Condon’s DREAMGIRLS – despite a few hiccups in some spots - is a sizzling, bold, and unapologetically audience pleasing musical that is bound to make viewers applaud and cheer. It has all of the right ingredients for the best films of the genre: crisp and sure-fire direction, flashy and vivacious song and dance numbers, and vocal performances of such stirring and authoritative prowess, primarily through a career making turn by Jennifer Hudson and a career rejuvenating turn by Eddie Murphy. When the two are on screen DREAMGIRLS is boundlessly vigorous and brassy. Amazingly, the film also has the time to sneak in some commentary about the music world, past and present, and how artists are sold for looks first and talent second. It tells us how African Americans nearly drowned during the Civil Rights movement in an effort to be heard and recognized. It is the film's effective and winning combination of rousing spectacle and thoughtful, weighty issues that makes it invigorating screen musical that sets itself apart. DREAMGIRLS is rip-roaring in its vocal ferocity and is unabashedly entertaining. It seems tailor-made for the Oscars and – in this rare exception – it’s deserving of such accolades.