FAME COMES AND GOES, STARS RISE AND FALL, BUT DREAMS LIVE FOREVER.
“Dreamgirls” the Broadway musical was a major hit during the 1980s, but it took over 20 years to get the movie version made. After viewing the results, one can easily say that it was worth the wait. With this film, director Bill Condon (who made the equally impressive Kinsey (2004)) proved that he is one of Hollywood’s most solid filmmakers, a man capable of doing great things in several genres.
The best musical since Chicago (2002) takes place in Detroit, the city where Motown started. In 1962, a girl group who call themselves The Dreamettes enter a talent competition where they meet the ambitious Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx) who’s looking for the right people and material to make a name for himself in the music business. He manages to hire the three girls, Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles), Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) as backup singers to James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy), a popular R&B singer. Curtis starts a record label but quickly learns that in order for his artists to be played on radio he has to turn to payola.
The scheme is successful and his business takes off. He and Effie start dating, but when The Dreamettes are turned into more of a pop act (and change the name into The Dreams) with Deena as the lead singer, Effie feels betrayed and becomes so difficult that Curtis replaces her. Their relationship ends and things change dramatically over the years. Curtis’s record label becomes a major player, he marries Deena and The Dreams rival even The Beatles in popularity. Effie on the other hand becomes an alcoholic and raises a child without ever telling Curtis that it’s his daughter. As her brother tries to get Effie back in front of a mike, Curtis becomes increasingly coldhearted toward James and Deena.
A foothold in reality
It’s not too difficult to see the real drama that lies behind the story; this is the fictionalized version of the rise of Diana Ross, The Supremes, Motown and its founder Berry Gordy. That gives the film a foothold in reality and the background is colored by the events of this time, including the impact of the civil rights movement. It’s interesting to note that the payola and the dirty deals are what bring Curtis down in the end… but he couldn’t have built his company and the success of The Dreams in an industry dominated by whites without it.
Condon keeps the story moving at a brisk pace and those instances where the dialogue turns into songs don’t feel too contrived. The scenes where some of the actors (notably Knowles and Hudson) express their grief or anger in singing are particularly powerful. The music sounds like it was produced by Motown in the ’60s, even though most of it was written for the stage 15 years later; no major hits, but the songs are of an even, high quality. The movie is like a box of colorful, irresistible sweets, and the cast virtually explodes before our eyes. Why can’t Murphy make more films like this? He’s perfect as the James Brown-like “Thunder”, and Knowles is also quite effective in a few sequences as the initially shy Deena.
The real star is of course former American Idol contestant Hudson who just goes all out as Effie; she handles the singing wonderfully, but the surprise is how confidently she takes on the dramatic parts.
All the glitz makes you forget about clichéd ingredients in the drama and the length of the film. As long as movies like this are made, the musical as a film genre has nothing to worry about. Dreamgirls makes us forget all about Rent (2005).
Dreamgirls 2006-U.S. 130 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Laurence Mark. Written and directed by Bill Condon. Play: Tom Eyen. Cinematography: Tobias Schliessler. Music: Henry Krieger. Songs: “Listen” (Henry Krieger, Scott Cutler, Anne Preven), “Love You I Do” (Henry Krieger, Siedah Garrett), “Patience” (Henry Krieger, Willie Reale). Costume Design: Sharen Davis. Cast: Jamie Foxx (Curtis Taylor, Jr.), Beyoncé Knowles (Deena Jones), Eddie Murphy (James “Thunder” Early), Danny Glover, Anika Noni Rose, Keith Robinson… Jennifer Hudson, Loretta Devine, John Lithgow, John Krasinski.
Trivia: Over the years, Whitney Houston was once approached about playing Deena; Joel Schumacher was a possible director for another attempt to turn the musical into a movie, with Lauryn Hill as Deena. For this version, Denzel Washington was considered for the part of Curtis. Devine performed in the original stage production.
Oscars: Best Supporting Actress (Hudson), Sound Mixing. BAFTA: Best Supporting Actress (Hudson). Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical), Supporting Actor (Murphy), Supporting Actress (Hudson).
Last word: “At the end of [a lunch with David Geffen] I said I had another movie to go off and make, which was ‘Kinsey’, and he said: ‘Well, it’s not going anywhere.’ So actually having made the decision to do it, then it got interrupted by 18 months of making another film. So I was so eager during ‘Kinsey’, I kept thinking about it, that when I got back and actually could write it all kind of poured out because I was so excited about it. Certainly, in the process there were things that were daunting. But the thing about a musical is that it all gets made in prep…. not all obviously but a lot of it gets planned out there. So whenever it felt overwhelming you just take a breath and go home and wake up the next morning and it would all be OK.” (Condon, IndieLondon)