Movie Review: Dreamgirls

Forgive me if this sounds redundant, but I feel I should advise you right up front that “Dreamgirls” is a musical. The reason I say this is because when the movie ended, I heard several people comment negatively about how there was too much singing. They clearly did not know what they were getting themselves into, and in their defense, the first I had heard of the musical – which, for the record debuted in 1981, ran for over 1,500 performances and won six Tony Awards – was about a month ago. So there it is. It’s a musical. Let’s move on.

Not only is it a musical, it is a highly entertaining one at that, especially if you’re a music geek and enjoy playing Spot the Similarity for these “fictional” characters. The soundtrack is not going to knock “Grease” off the shelves, but the performances of those songs more than make up for any shortcomings, and writer/director Bill Condon, for the most part, packs a bunch of zip into every scene.

The story is loosely based on the Supremes. It’s the early ‘60s, and childhood friends Deena (Beyoncé Knowles), Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) and Effie (“American Idol” contestant Jennifer Hudson) are the Dreamettes, a singing group looking for a break. They get their break when used-car salesman and talent manager in-training Curtis (Jamie Foxx) lands the three a slot singing backup for the hardest working man in show business, Jimmy “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy). The tour is a big success, and Jimmy and Lorrell get romantically involved. So do Effie and Curtis, until Curtis moves on to Deena. The girls eventually cut a single of their own, written by Lorrell’s brother C.C. (Keith Robinson), and before long are climbing the charts on their own. But Curtis, shrewdly, changes the lineup so that the slender, prettier Deena is singing lead over the heavier Effie, despite having a much weaker voice than Effie. The gamble pays off magnificently, but wreaks havoc on the band. You all know where it goes from here.

Words cannot even express what a step up this was after being subjected to “Rent” and “The Producers” last year. The plot certainly makes the musical interludes more watchable – it is a musical about music, after all – which means there are only a couple of scenes where the songs are performed as dialogue instead of songs. The song book is good if not great, but the performances of those songs are spectacular, and the eye for detail on the shifts in style from the early ‘60s to the late ‘70s is spot-on.

Shall we get to the Oscar talk now?

Granted, there are still a lot of movies I have yet to see, but Jennifer Hudson is my pick to win the Academy Award for Supporting Actress. She embodies Effie so deeply, so unconditionally, that she creates one of those moments when you forget you’re watching someone act and instead think you’re simply watching someone be. Likewise, Eddie Murphy could be in the race for Supporting Actor as well. His Jimmy is brash and talented but fragile and weak, not that you’ll think about the latter when he’s singing “Jimmy’s Rap” (easily the best musical number in the movie). And then there’s Jamie Foxx, who has the role that’s non-flashy but vital to the movie’s success. Had he played Curtis as a one-note pimp, all is lost. But Foxx’s Curtis really wants what’s best for the girls, but is ultimately overwhelmed by his lust for success.

“Dreamgirls” is easily the best movie I’ve seen so far in this holiday season (Note: this review was written November 30). Counting it as an Oscar hopeful may be a stretch, but there is no denying the movie’s charms. Now can someone tell me why Eddie Murphy decided to follow this with “Norbit” and “Starship Dave”? 

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)
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