Dreamgirls has heart. Read on:
Bill Condon’s adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Dreamgirls — the story of the rise of a singing group not unlike The Supremes — is slick and glitzy, and while it sometimes feels stagebound, it comes with a good measure of heart. The heart also feels slick and glitzy, but that may be the nature of the hit Broadway musical these days.
Moreover, Dreamgirls is actually about things: the perfidy of the music business, the theft of black American culture by the great white-bread factory of homogenized art, the real-seeming story of one woman whose talent is overlooked because she’s deemed not attractive enough for television.
That’s quite a bit for a movie, let alone a musical, but Dreamgirls, for all its virtues, feels mostly just slick and glitzy, rather than soulful and tragic. This may be because it is, after all, the story of a singing group not unlike The Supremes, a 1960s concoction of much nightclub pizzazz and a lot of hummable hits. Its soul-searching lasts for two-thirds of the movie and then, like some group that has found Top 40 success, it gives in to the easy temptation of the upbeat finish.
Not that it’s the story of Diana Ross or anything. In Dreamgirls she’s called Deena (Beyonce Knowles) one of the three Dreamettes, a trio in 1960s Detroit that also includes Lorell (Anika Noni Rose) and Effie (Jennifer Hudson). The Dreamettes are pretty indistinguishable from other groups in 1960s Detroit — the movie opens at a talent contest of various black groups in electric-blue costumes and synchronized choreography — except for the remarkable voice of Effie. It’s an instrument that can take an R&B song and make it a kind of spiritual of heartbreak, and there’s one scene in which Hudson turns her signature song “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” about a love that won’t let her live, into a bluesy recitative. It’s a scene that propels Hudson’s performance into something special, and it helps make Dreamgirls a kind of Motown opera.
There are several famous names in Dreamgirls: Jamie Foxx is Curtis Taylor, an entrepreneur not unlike Berry Gordy, a car salesman who becomes the manager of the Dreamettes and later their Svengali, stealing music and removing its soul to make it palatable to the masses. Eddie Murphy is James Thunder Early, a soul singer not unlike James Brown, whose thrusting pelvis, slicked-back hair and a certain desperation behind that huge Murphy grin make him into a character both tragic and audacious. It’s Murphy’s best work in years; he even showcases a passable singing voice.
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