Jamie Foxx as Curtis Taylor Jr.
Beyoncé Knowles as Deena Jones
Eddie Murphy as James ‘Thunder’ Early
Danny Glover as Marty Madison
Anika Noni Rose as Lorrell Robinson
Keith Robinson as Clarence Conrad ‘C.C.’ White
Jennifer Hudson as Effie Melody White
Sharon Leal as Michelle Morris
Hinton Battle as Wayne
Directed by Bill Condon
The raves given to “Chicago” and “Ray” are more deserved by this musical adaptation that transcends the musical genre with its moving portrayal of how the music business makes and breaks stars.
The rise of ’60s girl group The Dreams is followed by the further rise of singer Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles), whose relationship with their manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) gets the group’s sassy, full-figured, singing powerhouse Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) kicked out of the group early in their career.
The biggest problem with movie musicals is trying to adjust to the moments when people are having a normal conversation and one of them suddenly breaks out into song. Loosely based on the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes–fictionalized just enough to avoid costly lawsuits–the original Broadway musical “Dreamgirls” was a sensation back in the early ’80s. While there are certainly challenges in making it work as a film, being based on a musical group must have made it somewhat easier for director Bill Condon to incorporate the show’s songs and music more gracefully into a film.
The Dreams’ story begins at a Detroit talent show where musical entrepreneur Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) discovers the girls and lands them a gig as back-up singers to the flamboyant headliner James “Thunder” Early, played by Eddie Murphy in full-on James Brown modeBrown supposedly stole his moves from Early. This opening leads into a fairly straightforward rag to riches story about the rise of Beyoncé Knowles’ Deena Jones, while her former singing partner Effie White (the debut of “American Idol” contestant Jennifer Hudson) is left behind because her full figure and feisty attitude makes it harder for Curtis to control her. There isn’t much one needs to know beyond that, except that over the course of the film’s two hours, each character will achieve a full arc due to the equally satisfying subplots which create a rich story full of many ups and downs.
As with the Broadway musical, the story is told via a series of snappy up-tempo soul tunes, mostly performed onstage, and it’s almost a full hour before it falls back on the musical standby of people singing to each other, rather than talking. After writing the hit movie musical “Chicago,” Bill Condon takes the directorial reigns to create a vastly superior musical, the original songs and music heightened by Condon’s opportunity to create lavish stage productions, using the medium to the fullest without resorting to MTV-style editing or camera trickery. Condon clearly has a lot of fun dressing the girls up in lavish costumes and inserting them into television shows of the era ala “Forrest Gump.”
The film’s emotional peak comes when Effie is kicked out of The Dreams and Jennifer Hudson launches into the showstopping “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” to let Curtis know how she feels. It’s one of those defining movie moments that come along so rarely, the kind that has a guttural impact on the viewer that sticks with them long afterwards. One can’t help but be amazed by the range of emotions Hudson’s able to express in those mere four minutes, leaving you quite stunned and speechless.
Not surprisingly, the film takes a slight dive after Hudson leaves the screen and the focus shifts to Deena and Curtis. Jamie Foxx and Beyoncé’s awkward screen chemistry isn’t quite as effective at maintaining interest, so some might find themselves looking at their watch until Hudson returns to the story. Foxx certainly seems to be taking a more laid-back approach to his performance, but Beyoncé really doesn’t do very much in the first half of the movie. It’s not until Deena enters the limelight where we start to see why Beyoncé is considered a superstar, after taking a second to chortle over the irony of the role considering Beyoncé’s own troubles retaining bandmates. Beyoncé is only good when she’s singing, particularly when performing one of the film’s new original songs “Listen,” which mirrors Effie’s earlier ballad, as she fights back against Curtis’ domineering control.
Deena’s story isn’t a new one (“A Star is Born” anyone?) but “Dreamgirls” is unique in the way it splits off into two separate stories after Effie’s ouster from the group. While Deena is finding unlimited fame and success, Effie languishes in obscurity, struggling to raise Curtis’ illegitimate daughter on her own. It’s a story of how pride, namely Effie’s, can be one’s downfall, as she spends many bitter years angry about how her thinner, prettier and less talented partner achieved the fame she thought should be hers. In some ways, “Dreamgirls” may owe more to “Ray” than it does to normal stage-to-screen musical translations, by taking a candid look at the music business during the ’60s. Jamie Foxx’s Curtis Taylor Jr. is unapologetically modeled after Motown head Berry Gordy Jr., who took credit for molding artists like Diana Ross and the Jackson 5 into superstars. (There’s even a sound-a-like knock-off of the latter in Curtis’ roster of artists.)
The film’s biggest surprise comes in the form of an amazing comeback by Eddie Murphy, bringing so much to the movie not only with his hilarious musical performances, but also with a few rare poignant moments in the last act after Curtis has run Early’s career into the ground. It’s great to see Murphy earning back the respect he may have lost with some of his career choices. Hopefully, “Dreamgirls” will lead to better decisions and roles.
Besides giving Hudson a proper introduction to a wider audience, Condon should get props for the amount of time given to the smaller characters played by less-experienced actors like Keith Robinson and Anika Noni Rose as the group’s resident writer and their wide-eyed youngest member. This is an ensemble piece through and through, one that creates something far beyond anything the individual pieces may have accomplished on their own.
The Bottom Line:
The ideas expressed in “Dreamgirls” aren’t particularly deep or meaningful, but it’s an immensely satisfying and entertaining journey through the history of soul and r ‘n’ b via a fictionalized story that has many correlations to the real world. The reason why so many people love the Broadway show is the same reason everyone should love the movie, as the show’s catchy tunes are given new life in the capable hands of Bill Condon and his impressive cast, particularly newcomers like Jennifer Hudson and Keith Robinson.
Dreamgirls opens in an exclusive release in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, December 15, then expands nationwide on December 25.