Directed by: Bill Condon
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy
Opens: Today, March 2
Any way you look at it, "Dreamgirls" works.
As a showcase for individual performers, this film adaptation of the Broadway musical will launch the relatively unknown Jennifer Hudson into full-fledged stardom and revive the reputation of veteran Eddie Murphy.
As a bit of social commentary, the film examines nearly two decades of popular entertainment, from African-American culture's suppression by a white establishment to its ultimate triumph.
And as pure entertainment, "Dreamgirls" grabs us with the first scene and never lets go. Director Bill Condon ("Gods and Monsters," "Kinsey" and the screenplay for "Chicago") masterfully blends all the elements of the movie musical, giving us a story that despite its broad strokes has moments of shattering intimacy and ribald humor.
Roughly inspired by the story of the Supremes, "Dreamgirls" begins in the early '60s in Detroit with a trio of teenaged singers struggling for recognition at a talent show. Deena (Beyonce Knowles) is the slender pretty one. Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) is the silly one. The most talented of the three is Effie (Hudson), a big girl with a bigger voice.
Calling themselves the Dreamettes, the three fall under the spell of a fast-talking young manager, Curtis (Jamie Foxx), who takes charge of their careers, dictating their look and repertoire and transforming them from naive young things in frilly frocks to well-coiffed stars of the chiltlin circuit.
But Curtis, a manipulative schemer of Machiavellian intensity, is only getting started. He believes the Dreamettes can be molded to appeal not only to black audiences but to whites as well. The girls can be the foundation of Curtis' own record label (if you're thinking Berry Gordy and Motown, you're on the mark). All it will take is some tweaking of their image.
For starters, that means projecting the beautiful Deena as the lead singer and reducing the other two girls to backup status. When the willful Effie objects to being downgraded, Curtis kicks her out of the group and out of his bed.
That's the setup for Effie's big solo number, "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," a betrayed woman's defiant plea for love. It made a star of actress Jennifer Holiday when she sang it in the Broadway show, and it will do the same thing for Hudson. When it's over, don't be surprised if the movie audience erupts in applause.
But then "Dreamgirls' is thick with terrifically performed musical numbers. The film's recreation of old-style soul revues is dead on, and Condon cannily explores the evolution of black music during this era.
Early on he cuts from a soul singer delivering a gutsy, bluesy number to that same song - slowed down into a syrupy slog - being performed on television by a squeaky clean white kid and two girls in poodle skirts. It's a great throwaway visual gag that says volumes about how black music was watered down for Caucasian consumption. (Not that the money- and power-mad Curtis won't do the same thing.)
The film moves along at such a brisk pace there's not a lot of time for conventional character development. Indeed, these are mostly stock characters, stereotypes we've encountered before.
But here's the magic of musicals: The songs illuminate the inner life of the characters well beyond what's in the script.
Among the movie's many joys is Murphy's scintillating turn as James "Thunder" Early, a substance-abusing soul man who bears more than a passing resemblance to James Brown. Murphy turns out to be a terrific singer, and his portrayal of a performer who struggles to conform to changing audience tastes provides a cautionary tale about straying too far from one's roots.
"Dreamgirls" has it both ways. On a superficial level it's a wildly entertaining showbiz story. But look a little deeper and you'll find the broad sweep of American popular culture.
Mostly you'll have a great time.