(PG-13) Four stars
In a few weeks, when the Academy Awards announces their Best Picture nominees, three of the five will be Dreamgirls, The Departed and The Queen (the other two will probably be Letters from Iwo Jima and United 93, but I’m not sure). Dreamgirls will win. The Queen doesn’t have a prayer because it’s too low key and The Departed — the best of the three films — won’t win because it’s so violent.
Just thought you’d like to know. Next week I’ll reveal the winner of the 2007 World Series.
But I digress.
Dreamgirls is the big screen adaptation of the the 1981 musical about the rise to stardom of a Motown-style female trio that is not The Supremes, which won six Tonys (despite losing the Best Musical category to Nine) and ran for 1,521 performances. The film is directed by Bill Condon, who wrote the screenplay for Chicago and directed Gods and Monsters and Kinsey.
I can’t compare the Broadway show to the movie because I didn’t see the Broadway show. I missed Nine too. Truth be told, aside from Hair, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Little Shop of Horrors, I don’t have much use for musicals.
Shocking, isn’t it? Year after year, at the annual North American Gay Agenda Convention, the Stereotype Preservation Committee keeps threatening to revoke my membership over my poor attitude towards musicals.
But I digress again.
Here’s the thing: Dreamgirls is a very good movie. Despite the fact that the cast sings damn near everything, the production grabbed me and held me tight all the way through. The songs range from good to applause-right-there-in-the-movie-theater worthy, the cast is outstanding and Condon’s swirling, shifting direction keeps the eye engaged while propelling the story along in a skittering fashion.
Not that the production is perfect. At several points, the spectacle of it all overwhelmed the characters and I found myself drinking in the drama of the songs and staging more than that of the characters. And despite the efforts of Jamie Foxx, who gives a brave performance, the character he plays becomes more of a figure than a person as the film goes on.
The story begins in 1962, as we meet the Dreamettes (see, they’re not The Supremes at all) at a Detroit talent contest. Effie (Jennifer Hudson), Deena (Beyonce Knowles) and Lorell (Anika Noni Rose) are quickly “discovered” by Curtis Taylor Jr. (Foxx), who is not Berry Gordy Jr., and given a job singing backup for James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy), who is not any of three or four different self-destructive R&B stars.
Eddie Murphy, by the way, is terrific. Hopefully, his inspired performance as Early will lead him to more meaty parts in grown-up movies and less of those miserable family comedies built around special effects and fart jokes.
The goal of impresario Taylor is to break through to the mainstream audience, which means toning down the soul so as not to scare the white people. After Early freaks out an upscale nightclub crowd, the Dreamettes become headliners and their name is shortened to the Dreams. Then Effie, the lead singer of the trio, gets demoted to backup, as Deena, who is less talented, but slimmer and prettier in the Caucasian sense of the word, takes the lead.
From there things get better and better for the group and worse for Effie, building to a dazzling sequence in which she gets replaced by a less tempermental singer (Sharon Leaf). This is the point where ex-American Idol cast-off and future Best Supporting Actress Jennifer Hudson brings down the house with her shiver-inducing delivery of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” easily the high point of the film.
Said high point comes about halfway through the movie, which is not as big a problem as you might think. Dreamgirls has plenty of juice left, dealing with relationships, betrayal and, perhaps, reconciliation, as it storms to a satisfying finale that offers the characters happier endings than real-life gave to the performers. The bottom line is that Dreamgirls isn’t a great movie, but it is a very good one. And if you share my general distaste for musicals, let me assure you that this one goes down easy.