Dreamgirls gives Hollywood some much-needed soul

By John Frame

Filmed with simple yet breathtaking camera shots and effective dance sequences, writer/director and Academy Award–winner Bill Condon’s cinematic adaptation of the Tony Award–winning musical Dreamgirls plays like a time warp. Beginning in the early 1960s and cruising through the 1970s, Dreamgirls, chronicles the fictional rise of the Dreamettes (later The Dreams), a black female trio of singers from Detroit.

The Dreamettes get their big break when the talent competition they would have won is rigged by a slick manager/car salesman named Curtis Taylor (played effectively by Jamie Foxx), who wants to use the girls to achieve crossover success on the music charts.

Effie (Jennifer Hudson, in a performance that should definitely garner her an Oscar nomination) is the overweight, sassy, hotheaded lead singer of the Dreamettes, until Curtis replaces her in the group (as well as in his bed) with the sweet-voiced, lighter-skinned Deena, played by superstar Beyoncé Knowles. Knowles proves herself to be a credible screen actress, while Tony Award-winner Anika Noni Rose (Caroline, or Change) shines in a limited role, rounding out the trio as the cute and bubbly Lorell.

Effie essentially takes one for the team, as expressed through the sentimental and humorous song “Family.” The Dreamettes become Deena Jones and the Incredible Dreams, a parallel of the real-life Diana Ross and the Supremes (on whose story the film is loosely and conveniently based). Rounding out the cast, Danny Glover plays Marty, the manager of Jimmy “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy), who Curtis replaces in order to boost Early’s failing career. Finally, Keith Robinson stars as Effie’s soft-spoken, wide-eyed brother, C.C.

When Effie is finally replaced by a newcomer (the beautiful Sharon Leal), she unleashes one of the most powerful and legendary anthems in all of Broadway history, earning her title as breakthrough performer of the year. “And I Am Telling You, I’m Not Going” is a battle cry, and Jennifer Hudson is phenomenal, despite the sequence’s distracting editing.

Part of the reason Effie is so iconic is because she is two-dimensional and memorable, all heart and voice, but almost no change. And she does go, despite her tantrum. By the end of the film she is still the fiery voice that sang “I’m staying, I’m staying/ And you and you and you/ You’re gonna love me!” This theme comes up again in one of the most subtle revenge moments of the film. When Effie confronts Curtis, who stole her soulful “One Night Only” and made it a Disco hit for The Dreams, she says, “That’s right Curtis, you stopped me once, but you’ll never stop me again,” and proceeds to belt out in his face, “‘Cause this time, Effie White is gonna win.” But to her credit, Hudson makes the role her own, making us want to believe that she’s changing (and the fitting ballad, “I Am Changing,” is powerful in its own right).

But the limited exploration/evolution of the characters is a fault of the original musical, and I suspect that Bill Condon wanted to be as faithful as possible, diverting attention from his own point of view, which rarely comes out in the film. Deena, for instance, is one of the only characters who experiences a clear change, but it nearly fails because of its abruptness. If she isn’t singing, Deena is silent throughout the entire film. When she unleashes the gorgeous ballad “Listen” in a recording studio, it is therefore hard to believe that the screaming and crying expressed through that song could come from Deena. Still, Knowles plays it well and throughout the film she channels a great sweetness and shyness that makes her work admirable.

Condon directs with great theatricality, an inversion and praise for the original stage musical that was legendary for Michael Bennett’s cinematic staging, with swooping curtains and conveyer belts. Condon should know a thing or two about movie musicals; he penned the successful brassy hit, Chicago, which won him his second Academy Award nomination. In that respect, Dreamgirls is a feast for the eyes. He captures the shiny, almost Technicolor aspect of the 1960s and 1970s pop music eras. The costumes, art direction, and cinematography all work toward achieving a cohesive vision with beautiful success.

The soul that Chicago lacked is here, expressed in songs like “Move,” the ironic “Heavy,” and the sweet “Dreamgirls,” where Knowles proves her singing versatility by channeling the voice of a young Diana Ross. But songs like “I’m Somebody” and “Step On Over” are forgettable.

The best songs come from Eddie Murphy, in an incredible and Oscar-worthy performance (perhaps the most enigmatic of his career) as Jimmy. “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” “Fake Your Way to the Top,” and “I Want You,” which begins as a slow ballad but ends with a James Brown bolt of lightning and gyration, as weel as the appropriate duet “Patience,” where Murphy projects a Marvin Gaye sensitivity and Rose channels a young Tammy Terrell, are all brilliant and fitting. But the film fails in its exploration of Jimmy’s drug habit and his affair with Lorell, and his songs seem to take the place of what could have been plot and substance.

Bound to sweep the Academy Awards with the most nominations, Dreamgirls is still worth a peek, if only to see Jennifer Hudson transform into a star before your very eyes, Eddie Murphy electrify every moment he’s on screen, and Beyoncé Knowles give her most nuanced performance. When The Dreams sing, “We’re your Dreamgirls, boy/ We’ll make you happy,” it feels like the truth.