Dreamgirls (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Dreamgirls is a wonderful entertainment: a musical that, while not skimping on the music, delivers a multi-layered storyline featuring complex characters. The average Hollywood musical focuses on spectacle and, while there's some of that to be found in Dreamgirls, the movie has loftier goals, many of which it successfully achieves. If there's one weakness in the film, it's the music. While effective within the context of the picture, the songs have a generic quality. Even the standouts are not memorable. Leaving the theater, I was not seized with the desire to stop at a music store and purchase the soundtrack. However, this is a minor quibble, and it does little to impact the viewer's enjoyment of what is sure to be a huge crowd-pleaser.

Dreamgirls does for the African-American music industry what Boogie Nights did for the porn business. Despite radically different subject matter, both movies show the grim reality of the commerce through the eyes of a few involved characters. The films begin light and frothy, with a future of seemingly limitless possibilities for the protagonists, but the arc is one of a gradual descent into an abyss. Dreamgirls is not as dark as Boogie Nights, but it would be a mistake to assume that, just because it's a musical, it's percolating with feel-good moments. Nearly every character takes at least one metaphorical slap to the face. Dreamgirls is a high energy production and it is ultimately uplifting, but it doesn't shy away from dark moments.

The Detroit-based film spans the era beginning in the early 1960s and concluding in the mid 1970s. At the beginning, we are introduced to an all-girl trio named "The Dreamettes." They are comprised of throaty Effie (Jennifer Hudson), pretty Deena (Beyonce Knowles), and meek Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose). The songwriter for the group is Effie's brother, C.C. (Keith Robinson). They lack a manager but not drive. One night, after entering a talent contest, they catch the attention of would-be player Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), who has been put in charge of finding emergency back-up singers for soul legend James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy). Effie is initially reluctant - she sings only lead, not backup - but the money and potential opportunities win her over. Eventually, once Curtis has developed some clout, he spins off "The Dreamettes" on their own. For marketing purposes, he pegs Deena as the lead singer, even though Effie has the best voice. Although Effie accepts the slight at first, as the group's popularity skyrockets and they begin to have crossover pop success, Effie's bitterness comes into the open and the "The Dreams," as they are now known, face their first major crisis. It will not be their last.

Dreamgirls is all about what sells, and how marketing trumps talent. This is nothing new in the music business. It has been happening for decades and, if anything, is more prevalent today than ever in the past. (How else could one explain the sales of a pretty-but-talentless singer who shall remain nameless?) Curtis begins with a small dream to match small ambition. It's a dream he shares with the girls. However, as doors begin to open and he starts to see where dollars can be harvested, he becomes a cold, calculating businessman. He destroys Effie's career because she is "disruptive." He marries Deena because it's good for their joint images. He courts white audiences because only by getting airplay on mainstream radio stations will the group become mega-stars. Effie is the best singer, but Deena is pretty and doesn't make waves. When product and packaging are paramount, little else matters. Effie isn't only removed, she is forgotten.

Dreamgirls is one of those movies that makes you feel like you're experiencing something, not just watching it. Credit should be given to adapter/director Bill Condon, who balances music with character development and doesn't miss a beat. Despite the almost non-stop production numbers, we still identify with the men and women populating this film. We feel for them, cheering for their ups and weeping for their downs. A few years ago, Chicago won a Best Picture on the strength of its spectacle. The music in Dreamgirls isn't as memorable, but the performances and character development are stronger.

The acting is one of Dreamgirls' unassailable assets. One expects a top-notch performance from Jamie Foxx, who has proven himself to be among Hollywood's elite actors, and he delivers it. Foxx provides an unflinching portrayal of how power and greed can corrupt even the best of men. Eddie Murphy, in a smaller role, has an opportunity for a flamboyant turn as the James Brown inspired soul singer. (Did anyone else flash back to Murphy's Brown mimickry from Saturday Night Live?) However, by providing moments of quiet pathos, the larger than life character remains anchored. Beyonce is the weak link as the Diana Ross-inspired Deena. She has the voice and the looks but exhibits surprisingly little screen presence. Perhaps the biggest surprise is ex-American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson as the pivotal Effie. Not only does Hudson have the pipes, but she gives a standout performance filled with equal amounts of sass, brass, and sadness. Although she resides within the long shadow cast by Broadway's Jennifer Holliday, Hudson is good enough to warrant mention in the same breath. It's hard to imagine the Academy ignoring her, although they may have trouble deciding whether she belongs in the Lead or Supporting character. She's really the heart and soul of Dreamgirls.

Director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) has worked diligently to "open up" the play without damaging its integrity. Little scenes often have significant impact, such as a brief shot of Effie and Curtis outside the recording studio during the July 1967 12th Street Riot. However, while Condon's direction of the non-musical aspects of Dreamgirls are forceful, his approach to the numbers lacks the flair that Rob Marshall brought to Chicago. "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" (Effie's breakout song) remains the production's standout number. However, although it's presented with near-goosebump intensity, it lacks the "bringing down the house" power of its live counterpart. Other songs have faced a similar, if only slight, diminution in their transition from stage to screen.

These days, musicals are hit-and-miss affairs, but the marketing department is working overdrive on Dreamgirls, so it seemed destined for a Chicago-like reception, rather than something similar to what greeted last year's dismal duo of Rent and The Producers. Dreamgirls has all the aspects necessary to rouse audiences. It's the kind of movie people will tell other people to see, and word of mouth remains the most powerful advertising device. Dreamgirls is good and at times it touches greatness, and that's more than enough to make a lavish extravaganza like this a much-praised choice of critics and non-critics alike. As long as Hollywood can mount productions like this, the musical - which has been in intensive care for a long time - will never die.

Dreamgirls (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 2006-12-15
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1