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Dreamgirls (2006; Rated Rated PG-13)

Dreamgirls
B-
 

“And I am telling you it was good but not spectacular.”

-Richard Roeper

Dreamgirls Review

Dreamgirls

(2006; PG-13)

In theaters:
Monday, 25 December 2006

Summary: Based on the Broadway musical, a trio of black female soul singers cross over to the pop charts in the early 1960's.

Genre:
Drama, Musical

Director:
Bill Condon

Cast:
Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy

'Dreamgirls" is a star-studded, finger-popping, whiz-bang adaptation of the Broadway hit. It's sure to have some audiences literally standing and cheering, and it's bound to garner multiple Oscar nominations.

But it doesn't deserve to win in most categories.

They're selling this as the shoo-in for best picture, and I am telling you I'm not buying. As much as I enjoyed the sheer brassiness and emotion and bigness of this production, as much as I appreciated the performances from the terrifically talented cast -- as much as I liked "Dreamgirls" -- I didn't love it. Maybe it was just a little too slick and over the top for its own good.

Not that writer-director Bill Condon (who also penned the screenplay for the equally splashy "Chicago") has merely replaced the original Broadway cast with movie stars (and one "American Idol" finalist) and filmed the musical. There's a lot of flashy camera work (maybe too much), some new numbers, a few fresh plot twists, expanded roles for a couple of characters -- but at heart, this is essentially the same story that roared onto Broadway some 25 years ago.

But remember, it's not the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes, even though it sure seems like it was "inspired by" the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes.

Three poor black girls from Detroit become R&B crossover superstars, with the help of their Barry Gordy-esque, Svengali of a manager? Check.

The original and greatly gifted lead singer of the act is relegated to the background in favor of a thinner, more conventionally attractive, more audience-friendly diva? Check.

Pushed-aside former lead singer is quickly forgotten and falls on hard times? Check.

Lead singer becomes a solo sensation and branches out to film? Check.

Not to mention the parallel versions of James Brown and the Jackson 5, among others, who exist in this "Dreamgirls" universe.

The breathtakingly gorgeous pop/R&B star Beyonce Knowles has been cast as Deena, who becomes the lead singer of the group, replacing the more vocally and more physically robust Effie (Jennifer Hudson). Even Deena acknowledges Effie's a better singer, but Deena wins the spotlight on the strength of her face and her charisma, and her willingness to take direction.

There are a couple of levels of irony at work here, given the various personnel changes, lawsuits and drama involving Beyonce's real-life group, Destiny's Child, and the fact that everybody who starred in "Dreamgirls" on Broadway has been pushed aside for younger and/or more famous movie stars. (Of course, this happens with just about every big-screen adaptation of a Broadway musical, with the exception of "Rent.")

We first see the Dreamettes at a talent show in Detroit in the early 1960s. A curiously subdued but suitably villainous Jamie Foxx is Curtis Taylor Jr., the Cadillac salesman and aspiring talent manager who recruits the girls to sing backup for the lascivious Jimmy "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy), a James Brown-sounding soul sensation with a voracious appetite for extramarital affairs, booze and drugs.

Foxx seems particularly uncomfortable during the musical numbers, barely moving his lips, but Murphy deserves a best supporting actor nomination for his searing performance. Whether he's crooning a ballad or getting nasty with a sexually charged number onstage, rapid-fire quipping with the ladies and his bandmates or sinking into a drug-fueled funk, Murphy is riveting, not once winking at the camera or falling back on time-honored "Eddie-isms." It's maybe the best work he's ever done.

Jimmy scores an R&B hit with a tune called "Cadillac Car," but it's quickly mayonnaised into a mainstream hit by a ridiculous Pat Boone-type who strangles every ounce of soul from it. (It's an easy laugh and a funny bit, though it was funnier when "Saturday Night Live" made the same point about white artists purloining black music in a skit with Ray Charles some 30 years ago.) Burned by the experience, the money-motivated Curtis dials down the funk on the trio, packaging their look and sound so they'll be palatable to the "American Bandstand" crowd.

The key commercial move is installing Deena as the Dreamettes' lead singer, just as Effie's romance with Curtis is becoming complicated. (The fiery Effie clutches her midsection and says she's not feeling well about a half-dozen times, concealing her pregnancy with all the subtlety of a character on "General Hospital," yet nobody catches on.) When Curtis delivers the news to Effie that she's been replaced by Denna -- not just as lead singer, but as the leading lady in his life -- her response is the full-throttle "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." It's a star-making moment for Jennifer Hudson, and she brings it home with tremendous passion and heart.

Hudson's overall work in the film is basically a two-note performance -- sass and ballads -- but it's an impressive debut in a role that's tailor-made for accolades and acceptance speeches, and she's sure to get an Academy Award nomination, and probably a win.

As the '60s roll on -- Condon gives us snippets of Martin Luther King speeches, Detroit in flames and talk of the war in Vietnam -- Deena becomes an international superstar, sporting a Diana Ross-sized Afro, taking front and center on the album covers and flirting with the role of Cleopatra in a big-budget movie championed by Curtis, who is now her husband as well as the mogul of a Motown-like label. (In one unnecessary sequence, we see a Jackson 5 clone band singing a Jackson 5-type song. Why do that if you're claiming your story isn't inspired by the real Motown story?)

For a film celebrating R&B and soul music, "Dreamgirls" has a surprisingly conventional Broadway sound. We get ballad after ballad after ballad, with only occasional tastes of true funk or Marvin Gaye-type "message" music, both delivered by Jimmy. Regardless of the genre, Condon favors the rapid-fire, MTV style of quick cuts and fast zooms and dizzying pans, which adds to the energetic pace but doesn't always serve the music.

Condon also seems ambivalent about whether to make "Dreamgirls" a pure musical or a melodrama with music. Most of the time, the characters speak and act in a realistic manner on realistic sets, with the songs relegated to the stage. But every once in a while, a dialogue-driven scene will suddenly break into a mini-musical, with one of the characters launching into a song in the lobby of an office building or on the street. It might have been too much to have everybody singing all the time with no dialogue whatsoever, a la "Jesus Christ Superstar," but as a film "Dreamgirls," might have worked better if all the singing had been done onstage, or at least in separate scenes.

"Dreamgirls" is flashy and dazzling. It is overflowing with zest and talent. My guess is that fans of the musical will love it. But it's a little short on heart and soul, and it is deeply conventional. In the year of "The Departed" and "The Queen" and "Babel" and "Flags of Our Fathers"/"Letters from Iwo Jima," it's not the best picture of the year.
 

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