“Dreamgirls,” based on the hit Broadway play from the 1980’s, has finally made it to the big screen thanks to Bill Condon, who wrote “Chicago” and is the writer/director of “Gods and Monsters” and “Kinsey.” Condon serves as both writer and director here and proves he is the right man for the job. Condon has created a rousing hit that should bring life back into the genre that was reborn with “Moulin Rouge” and “Chicago,” but stumbled in the last few years with “Phantom of the Opera,” “Rent,” and “The Producers,” all of which failed at the box office.
“Dreamgirls” tells a now familiar story of three African-American women (Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson, Anika Noni Rose) trying to make it big in the world of rock music. The women (none too subtly based on The Supremes) catch their first big break after losing a local talent contest when they are picked to be backup singers for Jimmy Early (Eddie Murphy). Soon they are propelled into the world of rock music and come across the usual pitfalls (jealousy, fame, egos) that befall most performers who get too much too soon.
Managed by Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a car salesman who uses the profits to help front the act, the girls eventually are good enough to go on their own but not before Taylor decides that the heavyset, grand voiced Effie (Hudson), the lead singer, should be the backup while the more quiet but sexier Deena (Knowles) should assume the role as lead singer. Then the problems begin, as Effie’s ego, much like her voice, is too large to handle the demotion. As was the case with The Supremes’ Florence Ballard, Effie’s continuous bad behavior eventually leads to her dismissal from the group and back into the real world where no one is exactly welcoming her back with open arms.
The main story of “Dreamgirls” is the film’s biggest fault. We’ve all seen the rags to riches to rags story before and the film offers nothing new on the subject. Condon wisely keeps the story flowing with rich musical numbers that will make the audience tap their feet and smile.
The acting is uniformly fine with Jamie Foxx probably being the weakest link. Foxx has the smallest amount of singing time of the main characters, which is somewhat of a surprise considering his musical talents. His Curtis Taylor is the typical “make it big quick” type of hustler who will do whatever it takes to make a buck while hurting whomever he needs to hurt to stay ahead. His final scene, when he realizes something he really should have no way of knowing, is particularly silly.
Beyonce Knowles was obviously cast for her beautiful voice and she makes the most of it here. She commands the screen when she is performing but she also turns in a nice, understated performance when she is just acting. Obviously she is modeled after Diana Ross so she has some big shoes to fill and she fills them admirably.
Eddie Murphy gives the best performance of his career as Jimmy Early, a music world sensation who falls, as many singers tend to do, after so many years in the business. He’s carried on an eight-year affair with Lorrell, the other backup singer of the group, while still remaining married. The state of his marriage is barely glossed over so we never really get to know why he chooses to stray. Is he unhappy at home? Is the temptation from many beautiful women too much to handle? We can only guess. Murphy performs with the zest and vigor of Little Richard and James Brown rolled into one and gives one knockout musical performance after another. Later, when he has turned to drugs while trying to re-establish his career, he conveys quiet anger and disgust that he hasn’t earned more of a break then he has gotten. Murphy is likely to get a nomination for Best Supporting Actor and the nomination is deserved.
The real revelation of “Dreamgirls” is Jennifer Hudson. As Effie, the boisterous lead singer relegated to backup, Hudson shows wide emotional range from triumph to tragedy. Just after she is dismissed from the group, Hudson delivers a solo performance that is a showstopper. Her voice echoes loudly as she pours her heart out in one of the great movie musical moments in film history. When the scene was over, the audience erupted into well-deserved applause as if it was a Broadway show. Hudson, a one time losing contestant on American Idol, steals the movie every time she is on screen and, I believe, is likely to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
On the whole “Dreamgirls” is a very entertaining movie. It’s not as great as “Chicago” but it is certainly one of the better musicals to come out of Hollywood in many years. The musical numbers are very entertaining but the script is saddled with a certain predictability it never gets passed. Nevertheless the film should score a bunch of Academy Award nominations and bring the movie musical back into the spotlight where it belongs.