Based on the Tony Award-winning Broadway production by Michael Bennett, "Dreamgirls" has taken close to twenty-five years to reach the big screen. In that time, fads and music have changed, turning what was once a fairly topical loose biopic of Diana Ross and The Supremes into a nostalgic walk through a different time and place. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, only an observation that perhaps, in the year 2006, its moment in the spotlight has come and gone. Having never seen the show, the filmed adaptation of "Dreamgirls" stands on its own as a movie musical that certainly knows how to carry a tune, but is missing a heart. One watches the picture, occasionally gets swept up in individual song performances, but remains at an emotional distance from the characters and paperweight story.
After an inaugural performance at the Detroit Theatre, talented jumpstart soul group The Dreamettesheadstrong lead singer Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) and backups Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose)catches the eye of Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a Cadillac salesman by day and hotshot music manager by night. Curtis makes them an offer they can't refusego on the road with smooth star singer James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy) and perform backup for himand before long their careers are heating up.
When the time comes for the three of them to break out as their own group, retitled The Dreams and targeting Top 40 stations, superstardom comes with a price. Believing that the thin, "whiter"-looking Deena has what it takes to win over fans, the clearly more gifted but chunkier Effie is suddenly cast aside as a second banana. What follows is a whirlwind decade that sees Effie jobless and on welfare when she is replaced in the group, Deena stuck in a deeply controlling marriage to Curtis, and the success of The Dreams unable to translate to happiness for anyone involved.
Written and directed by Bill Condon (1998's "Gods and Monsters
"), "Dreamgirls" isn't so much a conventional musical as it is a music-drenched drama where the majority of the action takes place on the stages of clubs and concert halls. When a character finally does break out in song in their regular lives, it comes so deep into the proceedings that it feels awkward rather than natural. 2005's marvelous adaptation of "Rent
" did the genre right, making no qualms about the fact that it took place in a world where people sang, whereas "Dreamgirls" is less assured in its tone and approach to the material.
The plot is something of a rags-to-riches tale in which The Dreams ride a crest of fame that leads to a lot of miserable lives before they are able to reclaim their individuality. That in and of itself is palatable and rich with possibilities, but the characters and their plights rarely come alive in a meaningful way. With a story trajectory that is less than involving and seen many times before, it is up to the nonstop music to carry the torch. The songs are catchy and eclectic, adapting to the R&B, soul, disco and pop sounds of the '60s and '70s, and many of the musical performances are entertaining.
With that said, only a few numbers stand out above the rest. The title track is bouncy and lush and energetic. "Jimmy's Rap" is impressively handled by a revelatory Eddie Murphy (2003's "Daddy Day Care
"), so good after toiling away in awful family films for over ten years that it just goes to show what a fine dramatic actor he can be when given the chance. "Listen," beautifully performed by Beyoncé Knowles (2006's "The Pink Panther
"), is a powerful solo number that finds Deena finally gaining the courage to stand up for herself and what she believes in. The real showstopper, though, is undoubtedly "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," belted out by newcomer Jennifer Hudson with such raw passion and heartache that it actually provoked widespread applause during the screening I attended. For a person whose biggest previous claim to fame was getting booted off "American Idol," Hudson brings down the house with vocals to rival Aretha Franklin and a 1980s-era Whitney Houston. As an actress, she is an unaffected natural, but it is her voice that deserves the biggest accolades.
Stood alongside Jennifer Hudson's and Eddie Murphy's standout acting turns, the rest of the cast are window dressing. Jamie Foxx (2006's "Miami Vice
") plays against type as the backstabbing, unruly manager Curtis, and he is as slimy as the role calls for. As appointed lead singer Deena Jones, this is by far Beyoncé Knowles' most auspicious performance to date. She doesn't have the juiciest partthat is resigned to Hudson's Effiebut Knowles is convincing all the same as a woman who knows she is being used for her looks rather than her singing talent. As Lorrell, the final piece of the original Dreamettes, Anika Noni Rose (2003's "From Justin to Kelly
") gets the short end of the stick. Rose is quite effective in her scenes where she must contend with the knowledge that her long-term relationship with James "Thunder" Early has been behind the back of his wife, but mostly she is presented as a side player.
"Dreamgirls" is more satisfying to listen to than to watch, and isn't even the strongest R&B-tinged musical of this yearthat title goes to the overlooked "Idlewild
." Director Bill Condon knows how to pull out the best in his thespians, but he is on less solid ground when getting into the inner voices of his characters and visualizing the Broadway show for the silver screen. There is a curiously flat staginess to the film that gives away its roots more than it should, suggesting that "Dreamgirls" should have probably remained where it beganon The Great White Way.