For once, let's review a movie based on a famous musical theater piece and consider it without making comparisons to a beloved memory. Let the movie be judged on its own terms and in its own time. We are, of course, heading into a discussion of Bill Condon's new movie Dreamgirls, based upon the 1982 Broadway musical by Henry Krieger (music) and Tom Eyen (book and lyrics). Don't feel left out if you didn't see the original production. And don't feel as if you're missing something, either. The movie doesn't need - nor does it want - to be locked into its theatrical past. It's now a work of cinema that musical theater-lovers can and should embrace because it honors the show's musical theater roots while using the full potential of the big screen to tell its tale. The result is a great, big sprawling film that, despite its flaws, is a powerful reminder of the movie musical's unique majesty.
There is more than a nod to Broadway in Dreamgirls when you consider how the cast is peppered with musical theater people: Anika Noni Rose, Hinton Battle and Ken Page all have significant parts. And if you stay for the credits, you will see that the movie is dedicated to the memory of its original stage director, Michael Bennett. Now, that's sweet. But to truly capture the essence of Dreamgirls means more than tipping one's hat to Broadway; it also means finding the intersection of Hollywood, the music business, and American racial politics - and all of this within a story about a singing group modeled not-so-subtly on The Supremes. That the film falters here and there is only because its ambition is so great.
The film's greatest strength also houses its Achilles Heel. The score has several applause-provoking numbers (one being the anthemic "I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," performed to Oscar nomination perfection by Jennifer Hudson), and they are the extremely high spike marks in an otherwise undistinguished score. One can actually make a comparison of the lesser numbers in Dreamgirls to the score of this season's High Fidelity. Both musicals are about specific kinds of music that their scores try to replicate. With a few exceptions, there is nothing in Dreamgirls half as good as the songs we know and love by The Supremes, just as High Fidelity can only give you a pastiche of The Boss, etc. These shows cry out for either the real thing or more numbers that actually seem like the real thing
While we wait for those show-stopping numbers in Dreamgirls, though, the script is offering us something impressive: a large-canvas, richly sub-plotted story that goes beyond the simple show business biopic clichés. There is the ambition of a young, smart, striving black entrepreneur named Curtis (Jamie Foxx), who pioneers the acceptance of the first black crossover artists in clubs, radio and television during the turbulent height of the Civil Rights Movement. There is the always entertaining (and then tragic) picture of show business excess exemplified by the rise and fall of an ego-driven star played by Eddie Murphy (don't be surprised if he gets an Oscar nomination, as well - it's the most disciplined performance of his career). The most compelling emotional story in the movie belongs to Effie (Jennifer Hudson), who is the most talented of the original three Dreamgirls but gets pushed aside at a pivotal moment because she doesn't look right for the crossover audience. It's here that the movie is at its most complex because Effie is no cliché. She is proud, vulnerable, and undeniably talented but no beauty by white American standards. In order for everyone else to make it to the top, she is betrayed by her lover, her best friends and even her brother. But this is not a one-sided issue; Effie is a self-involved, often-times nasty woman. To the film's credit, she is neither a saint nor a sinner but a fully developed human being. That's why the audience is with her despite her diva meltdowns. If all of the characters were as richly drawn as Effie the movie would be even more successful. One disappointment is the lack of development of Deena (Beyonce Knowles), the Diana Ross character, who is an enigma throughout much of the film. She only comes to life in one ferocious song performed near the end of the movie.
The movie is somewhat over-directed and over-edited - a little bit too "look at me" - for our tastes, but some of that flash makes perfect sense when depicting the whirl of the 1960s and the quicksilver changes that were taking place in the music business and the world-at-large. The look of the film is gorgeous, with the production design, costumes and cinematography all combining to give the film both gloss and depth.
Dreamgirls is a movie that should be commercially successful enough to help continue the flow of stage musicals to the big screen. More important, it is artistically successful enough to warrant that flow, as well.