These “Dreamgirls” are worth the wait
Among the startling revelations provided by the spectacular new film “Dreamgirls”:
An Oscar-worthy big screen debut by “American Idol” contestant Jennifer Hudson.
A career-resurrecting performance by Eddie Murphy.
A surprising breakout turn by Beyonce’ Knowles.
Conclusive evidence that the Broadway musical is back as a force on the big screen.
Further proof of the sad and monumental modern-day decline in the quality of popular music by African-American artists.
Based on the Tony-nominated Broadway musical that hit the stage in 1981, this adaptation– directed by Bill Condon, who wrote 2002’s “Chicago”– chronicles the rise and struggles of a Supremes-like Motown girl group “The Dreamettes.” The story opens at a talent show where a talented trio– full-figured Effie (Hudson), the demure Deena (Knowles), and amiable Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) — catches the eye of car salesman and aspiring manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx who by comparison seems like the novice here). Despite Effie’s initial resistance, where we first witness her stubborn sassiness (“I don’t do backup”), the girls agree to tour as support singers for rhythm-and-blues headliner James “Thunder” Early (Murphy).
The pedestrian storyline parallels the emerging “new sound”-inspired career stories of many groups over the years, in this case Detroit in the mid-60s. There are the requisite power struggles as Taylor tries to make the group more marketable to the white audience, the pressure of getting radio airplay, romantic entanglements and infidelity within the group, payola schemes, and the price of stardom. At times “Dreamgirls” feels like a black version of “That Thing You Do,” with little to add to the well-known triumph-to-tragedy cycle common in the entertainment business.
But “Dreamgirls” is something quite special on its own. First, the film is jam-packed with great music– updated with new songs by original composer Henry Krieger-harking back to an era when soul music had cross generational appeal and required real singers and traditional musicianship. While the songs won’t make anyone forget the original Supremes or anything produced by the venerable team of Holland/Dozier/Holland, the Motown influence is given an appropriate theatrical boost with a contemporary feel that produces palpable sizzle. But the big, shocking surprise is in the electrifying performances that lift the film to Oscar-worthiness.
As it turns out, Hudson is better off not having won 2004’s Idol competition. Better to come from nowhere to breathe new life into the musical’s most famous song, the showstopping “And I’m Telling You.” Then she tops that by delivering an even more compelling Aretha-esque performance of “I’m Changing.” The lightweight material that defines Beyonce’s movie and recording career didn’t prepare us for her smoldering turn as the Diana Ross-like Deena. We know her angelic beauty, but her triumphant delivery of “Listen” toward the end of the film should convince even her most ardent detractors that she deserves her star status. For his part, Eddie Murphy goes beyond mere impersonation to endow Early with a riveting James Brown/Sam Cooke voltage and a pathos-inducing authenticity.
Many fans of musical theater hoped that the critical and commercial success of “Moulin Rouge” and “Chicago” would inspire more Broadway-based film adaptations. When the underrated “Phantom of the Opera” barely broke even, the self-indulgent “Rent” tanked, and the under-appreciated “The Producers” barely made a ripple, many critics thought the movie musical had died before it could be reborn.
“Dreamgirls” changes all that. The film should do well at the box office and deserves to win plenty of awards. And the memorable performances by Hudson, Knowles and Murphy, heretofore newbies to Oscar discussion, should be fun.
Rated PG-13 for language, some sexuality and drug content.