Dreamgirls (2006) / Musical-Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for language, some sexuality, and drug content
Running Time: 131 min.

Cast: Beyonce Knowles, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Hudson, Eddie Murphy, Keith Robinson, Anika Noni Rose, Danny Glover, Anika Noi Rose, Sharon Leal, Hinton Battle John Lithgow, Bobby Slayton, Loretta Devine
Director: Bill Condon

Screenplay: Bill Condon (based on the play, with lyrics and book, "Dreamgirls", by Tom Eyen)
Review published January 2, 2007

The long-running, Tony award-winning Broadway musical, "Dreamgirls", is the latest to get the big screen treatment, and it proves to be another success.  Essentially inspired by elements of the Motown story and the real-life rise of The Supremes, the musical tells a cynical tale of how Black music broke through to a mainstream audience, but lost its soul (as well as its Soul) in the process.  The project to bring it to the big screen had been kicked around for almost twenty years, but with recent critical and commercial successes in the musical genre, the push finally proved timely, and well worth the wait.

Starting off in early 1960s Detroit, Dreamgirls follows the struggles of a Black female trio of singers, known collectively as The Dreamettes, who have gone from amateur competitions around the area without much success.  The trio includes the talented full-figured lead singer Effie (Hudson), and behind her, her friends Deena (Knowles, The Pink Panther) and Lorrell (Rose, From Justin to Kelly).  Despite their losses, they are soon discovered and promoted by a used car salesman named Curtis (Foxx, Miami Vice), who sells everything he has to put all his effort into promoting the act to the top of the pop charts, utilizing songs written by Effie's brother, C.C. (Robinson, Fat Albert). They start off as background singers to a popular R&B star named James "Thunder" Early (Murphy, The Haunted Mansion), but Curtis has bigger dreams in mind, breaking off from Early to get the girls, now dubbed The Dreams, big gigs of their own. 

However, Curtis's plan for stardom involves some unpopular sacrifices, starting with making the slender, attractive Deena the lead singer, hoping to ride her looks and less-than-bold vocal talent into a more palatable mainstream product, in spite of the fact that Effie is his girlfriend.  As the trio becomes more successful, Effie has trouble accepting her diminished role, especially as Curtis becomes so fixated with Deena that she feels she can no longer compete, either as a singer or as a lover.  When Effie leaves the group, all obstacles are cleared for Curtis to finally take The Dreams right up to the very top, hiring another attractive, slim girl to fill in the third spot (Leal, Face the Music).  The new pop-friendly, ultra-sexy sounds of The Dreams becomes an international phenomenon, but is this success what the three young girls from Detroit really what they've dreamed about?

Bill Condon, the screenwriter who received an Oscar nomination for his winning adaptation of the smash hit, Chicago, offers up more of the same magic here, only this time, he directs the film himself.  Interestingly, rather than try to keep as much of the stage musical intact in order to please fans of the theater production, Condon has made several significant changes in his adaptation, most notably in making the characters play more like the real-life counterparts of their inspiration.  Condon also added more social commentary on topical events that occurred in the civil rights movement during the years that the story takes place, and how they reflect in the business side of the entertainment, with Curtis's actions essentially mirroring many of the tactics taken by white music production houses in taking Black music, diluting the sound, and marketing it for white-based radio consumption.

Of course, Dreamgirls main chance at success lies more in the casting than in the script, and in this regard, it proves to be mostly a success.  While Beyoncé Knowles is perfect (and often mesmerizing) as the Diana Ross-like singer whose appeal lies just as much in her looks as it does in her singing ability, it's really newcomer Jennifer Hudson, a former contestant on "American Idol", who impresses the most, not only for her singing, but also for delivering a quality performance in the pivotal role of Effie.  Rounding out the star power are comedians-turned-actors-turned-singers Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy, allowing the film the versatility necessary to play at alternate times as a musical, drama, and comedy, sometimes utilizing all three within certain scenes.  One final note: she may be easily forgotten, but to give her her due, I should mention that Broadway veteran (but still a relative unknown to movie audiences) Anika Noni Rose holds her own with a formidable cast around her as the third singer of The Dreams.

If there is a disconcerting aspect for some audiences, it's in Condon's decision to include a few scenes where the dialogue is sung instead of spoken.  This is perfectly in keeping with the style of the Broadway production, which features much more of this style than the film does, with Condon beefing up the dramatic dialogue for purposes of an easier narrative and deeper characterizations.  It probably would have worked to Condon's advantage had he set up this style earlier in the film, as it does seem unnatural when the film plays as a straightforward drama for long periods to then inject musical pieces that are not an on-stage performance or studio recording scene.  There are also some new songs not featured in the stage musical that have been added, which unfortunately represent some of the weaker numbers in comparison to the very strong original soundtrack pieces.

While not quite as polished and satisfying overall as Chicago, the strength of the music, production and commentary on the ups and downs of the music industry do make for an interesting, thoughtful, and enriching experience to justify making a film version of, despite some of the more dated aspects of the original material.  It's a tad long, and sometimes unfocused, falling just short of being the knockout it had the potential of being, but all in all, the sights and sounds do deliver when it counts.  As a traditional film, it has its inconsistencies, but as a dazzling celebration of music, and of its influence to an important American era, its potent effectiveness is sublime.

Qwipster's rating: 

©2007 Vince Leo