Broadway musical comes into its own on screen
By Devin D. O’Leary
Directed by Bill Condon
Cast: Beyoncé Knowles, Jennifer Hudson, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy
Movie musicals face a problem that not even films about dragons, fairies and/or hobbits run across. On stage, musicals work perfectly, functioning essentially as concerts with a slight storyline. On the big screen, however, suspension of disbelief is harder. Why are all these people singing? Why is that gang of juvenile delinquents dancing? Why are John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John flying into the sky in a convertible? It’s all so damn ... unnatural.
There was a time when movie musicals were a Hollywood stock-in-trade. Now, however, not even a smash run on Broadway guarantees stage-to-screen success (witness the failure of The Producers, Phantom of the Opera and Rent). Unless your musical has got penguins in it, it would seem your odds of failure are high. The last legit movie musical that did gangbuster business (and more or less set the bar for cinematic singers) was 2002’s Oscar winner Chicago.
Chicago found the perfect way to blend its songs into its narrative. A lot of credit for that goes to screenwriter Bill Condon, who helped shape the idea that all the production numbers were taking place inside the showbiz-addled brain of the film’s protagonist. The success of Chicago bodes well for the success of Hollywood's newest movie musical, the long-brewing Dreamgirls--after all, the aforementioned Mr. Condon is on board here as both writer and director (a double-barreled task he performed previously on Oscar-bait film Gods and Monsters and Kinsey). Despite Condon’s inestimable presence, Dreamgirls takes a little while to crack the difficult nut that is creating a natural movie musical.
As an exposé of modern showbiz, Dreamgirls has it relatively easy. Like the long-running Broadway show that inspired it, Dreamgirls is a portrait of the rise and fall of a Diana Ross and the Supremes-style singing group. Nearly all the songs take place in the context of a stage show (much like the easy-to-swallow, performance-based music biopics Ray and Walk the Line). A small selection of songs do not, though. And for audiences, it’s ever so slightly uncomfortable waiting for the film to find the delicate rhythm between hard reality and musical fantasy.
At a jam-packed 131 minutes, it’s easy to forgive the film some initial hesitation. When Dreamgirls finally does find its rhythm, it sings along at an absorbing clip. With the set-up out of the way and the showbiz clichés more or less laid out, it’s easier to concentrate on the film’s solid drama and unforgettable performances.
Destiny’s Child singer-turned-actress Beyoncé Knowles stars as Deena Jones, a naïve gal who enters an early-'60s talent contest with her two childhood pals, known collectively as The Dreamettes. The girls lose but are instantly snapped up by a fast-talking talent agent who hires them to sing backup for a successful R&B singer named James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy, channeling the still-living spirit of James Brown). From there, the film traces the girl group (now retitled Deena Jones and the Dreams) as they rise to fame throughout the turbulent ’60s and on into the excess-filled disco era of the ’70s.
As the group continues to flourish, Deena is pushed further and further into the spotlight by her ambitious manager/husband (Jamie Foxx). Deena’s superstardom doesn't sit so well with the other members of her group, particularly the bitchy but supremely talented Effy White (“American Idol” contestant Jennifer Hudson), who has long been deposed as the group’s lead singer.
The cast is top-to-bottom great. For the first time on screen, Beyoncé really proves her worth. She's a perfect wide-eyed innocent in the early scenes, and lends a certain diva-esque gravity to her character’s later life.
Credible as Beyoncé is as the group's pretty face, nearly ever scene is stolen by Jennifer Hudson, who will simply flatten audiences with her knockout perf of the showstopper “And I'm Telling You I’m Not Going.” The tune has long been a signature of singer Jennifer Holiday, who originated the role on stage back in 1981, but Hudson owns it here. Watching Hudson, particular in the later segments when her character comes into her own, it’s almost impossible to believe you’ve never heard of this woman before. She’s going to win an Oscar for her work here, no doubt about it.
Heck, even Eddie Murphy does a commendable job with his small but crucial character, tapping into his own troubled fights with alcohol and drugs to prove he's a fine screen actor, if only someone would give him a decent role once in a while. His performance is funny, powerful, soulful, sexual and, in the end, heartbreaking.
Riding the ups and downs of mid 20th-century pop culture, Dreamgirls is an emotional, entertaining, tuneful look at the backstabbing politics of pop music--from the P.R. to the product endorsements to the payola. The songs are wonderful, the cast is unforgettable. Throw in some gorgeous costumes and some glittering cinematography and you’ve got a certified holiday treat.
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