Movie Review: Dreamgirls (2006)

A composite retrospective on the music of Soul and Motown___ 8/10
Reviewed by Brian R. Wright

Directed by Bill Condon

Jamie Foxx …. Curtis Taylor Jr.
Beyoncé Knowles …. Deena Jones
Eddie Murphy …. James ‘Thunder’ Early
Danny Glover …. Marty Madison
Anika Noni Rose …. Lorrell Robinson
Jennifer Hudson …. Effie Melody White
Keith Robinson ….  ‘C.C.’ White

This is a large, beautiful movie that stays true to its roots.  Based on the book and lyrics written by Tom Eyen, the movie is an adaptation of the musical play of the same name that debuted in 1981.

Condon dedicates the movie to the director-choreographer of the play, Michael Bennett, who died in 1987 of AIDS complications.  He keeps the spirit of Bennet’s creation intact with a bold, insightful, entertaining gem of a movie with dynamite acting and musical performances.

The story is about three young women, a composite of the Supremes and Aretha Franklin—Beyonce (~Diana), Anika, and the American Idol finalist, Jennifer Hudson (~Aretha)— who as the Dreamettes meet up with a young promoter, Curtis—a Barry Gordy Jr. surrogate played by Jamie Foxx—at a Detroit theater in the early 1960s.

Initially performing backup with James Early (a combo of Jackie Wilson and James Brown, and others, played by Eddie Murphy), Curtis turns the Dreamettes into the Dreamgirls and promotes their considerable talents all the way to the top of the musical world.  The sets of Detroit and environs, LA, and other entertainment venues are uncannily realistic.

Dreamgirls makes unsubtle commentary on the cuthroat nature of the music business and the racism back in the day that enabled popular white singer labels to steal the music of rising black bands.  But the main thrust is the pure singing joy of Beyonce, Eddie Murphy, and especially Jennifer Hudson who plays the brassy, complex, moody Effie.

Beyonce, as expected, is beautifully terrific in her Diana Rossish role, Murphy shows an unexpected astonishing vocal talent to flesh out his soul-man character, and Hudson is off the charts.  As someone who doesn’t especially like musicals, I can say the music works well here to move the story.

However, I feel the featured song from Jennifer Hudson, “And I Am Telling You… I’m Not Going,” is a couple of steps over the line.  You sense the director-writer thinking is let’s pump one out and take out all the stops, feature a great voice that can break glass at 50 paces.  I understand that.

But for me that level of output doesn’t work, maybe partly because I feel the contrivance behind it.  In the plot, Effie has become resentful of the direction Curtis is taking the girls.  Curtis puts Deena (Beyonce) in the spotlight rather than the more heavily piped Effie, saying “We just want the lighter sound that appeals to more audiences.”

Curtis also shifts his bedroom attention to Deena from Effie.  After Effie continues to behave unprofessionally, Curtis makes the move to replace her… both personally and in the group. This is what prompts her soulful protest.  Even if you think it’s overcooked, as I do, you probably won’t forget the performance—the choreographical touches, with mirrors surrounding her on a small platform, are brilliant.

As a rags to riches epic music story, it’s got legs if not wings come Oscar time.  The resemblance to Chicago is not accidental, as Condon wrote the screenplay for that 2002 Academy award-winner.  If you like musicals, this one can be a 10 for you.

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