by David Cornelius
I have never in all my moviegoing life heard as much applause for a single performer as I heard roar from the audience watching an early screening of “Dreamgirls.” The cheers were aimed at Jennifer Hudson, the former “American Idol” contestant who makes her movie debut here. They cheered through her songs. They cheered her grand finale. They cheered loudest of all when her name came up during the closing credits. Best of all, every single inch of applause was earned, and the movie knows it: during those credits, it sets up a lengthy, overflowing-with-pride “and introducing” credit to round out its cast list, the titles themselves allowing Hudson one more richly deserved moment in the spotlight. A star, as they say, is born.“Dreamgirls” is loaded with exceptional performances - Jamie Foxx brings welcome nuance to a potentially one-dimensional character; Eddie Murphy gives the knockout turn we’ve waited to see him deliver for years; Keith Robinson, Anika Noni Rose, and Danny Glover offer up sharp supporting efforts; even Beyoncé Knowles, whose previous film parts have been forgettable bits of stunt casting, lights up the screen with her complex lead role - yet it’s impossible to think back on this movie without first thinking of Hudson. It’s the singing that gets her noticed (most obvious being her epic show-stopper “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”), but there’s also something special about the rest of her performance - the way she holds herself, the way she grows with her character. We get a sense of a real person in Hudson’s Effie Melody White. It’s a case of someone being cast for her vocal chops, then showing she can hold her own, and then some, in the acting side as well.
"Yes, Jennifer Hudson really is that good."
As for the film itself, it’s a thrilling chunk of entertainment that soars along so well on its extravagant showmanship that you don’t mind the occasionally clunky storyline. “Dreamgirls” is adapted from the 1981 hit musical of the same name; I have not seen the stage version, but judging from the film, I’m willing to guess that it, like “Chicago” (the must-mention film when modern movie musicals are being discussed), focused much more on the music and less on the story. (Broadway fans are sure to correct me if I am wrong.) The plot is little more than an excuse for the many powerhouse tunes, all of which effortlessly replicate the Motown sound and its evolution over the decades. The movie’s first half is a frenzy of R&B goodness, throwing us from song to song to song with wicked abandon, and what great fun it is to get caught up in it all.
But then the movie eventually feels obligated to spend time on the story, which was actually doing just fine working itself out in the corners of the music. Inspired by the history behind the Supremes, “Dreamgirls” follows a girl group as they rocket to fame alongside used car salesman/aspiring music mogul Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Foxx), while witnessing the downfall of former soul legend James “Thunder” Early (Murphy). The sad twist comes when Curtis demotes the curvy Effie from lead singer to backup, all to showcase the more camera-friendly Deena Jones (Knowles) - all while Curtis turns his romantic attentions away from Effie and toward Deena.
In the movie’s first act (which culminates in “I’m Not Going”), all this story mixes flawlessly with the music. Writer/director Bill Condon (who previously wrote the “Chicago” screenplay) balances involving drama, audience-rousing comedy (who can resist the lame-white-guy-steals-the-smokin’-soul-hit gag?), and all those hit songs, without ever letting the hectic pacing overtake the intensity of the story and its characters.
Then comes the second act, which awkwardly jumps ahead to the 1970s, offering (as many musicals do) less music and more cumbersome plot work. Drama becomes melodrama as Curtis becomes a tyrant, Thunder Early slips into a drug habit, and Effie struggles to get by, a long forgotten former Dream. The pace now slower, there’s more time to realize that the story’s not the reason we came to watch “Dreamgirls,” and the second half becomes a bit sluggish.
Of course, there’s still plenty of thrills in this second act, most notably a gala concert allowing the film to parody several Motown stars, including a terrific Jackson Five replica. That concert also allows Murphy to give us what is possibly his finest moment yet on film: an on-stage breakdown that begins with Thunder stuck between his wife and his mistress and ends with a manic striptease that reminds us that this new era of Curtis’ record label has long forgotten the down-and-dirty R&B of its roots, content with mellow, watered-down soul that sells better in Middle America.
Indeed, “Dreamgirls” hides within its toe-tapping, audience-friendly musical numbers a rather bitter tirade against the death of soul. Producers sold out, moguls got greedy, and genuine talent got sidetracked for an easy sell and a pretty face. It’s this anger that ultimately redeems the second half of “Dreamgirls,” which otherwise would have become just another average, overlong rise-to-fame-and-back-down-again story. There may be less music, less enjoyable frenzy, but Condon is relishing a chance at showing us how things go wrong.
Consider, for example, a late scene in which Deena is offered a movie role, her chance to break out and showcase a new talent. The role is a challenging one, but it’s also one that will most likely ruin her good-girl image, and so it must be reluctantly turned down. (Curtis would rather cast her in a big-budget mess of his own making.) Moments like this reveal artists letting fame and fortune put them off track in all the wrong ways.
And then, of course, it all comes back to Hudson’s Effie, who has lived a life away from the spotlight and is all the more hungry, all the more pure for it. Her gradual reappearance into the story revitalizes it, just as the character revitalizes those around her.So we leave the movie smiling, and humming, and feeling perfectly entertained. “Dreamgirls” is not a great movie, but it is a great crowd-pleaser. You won’t mind the uneven story so much, as you’ll be too busy having fun. This is a big, brassy, sometimes messy, often electric musical experience - with plenty of soul.
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originally posted: 12/27/06 16:25:45