Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson, Eddie Murphy
Directed by Bill Condon
I can’t remember the last time I walked out of a movie feeling so mesmerized, giddy and excited that I couldn’t wait to see it again as soon as humanly possible. Actually, I can – it was four years ago, when “Chicago” cast the same sort of irresistible spell with its dazzling energy, lavish production values and powerful musical numbers. No surprise then that it grossed more than $170 million at the box office (making it the second-biggest movie musical of all time behind “Grease”) and won six Academy Awards (including Best Picture).
It’s also no surprise that the sensational “Dreamgirls” left me feeling the exact same way, since it was written for the screen and directed by “Chicago” screenwriter Bill Condon. Based on Michael Bennett’s Tony Award-winning Broadway sensation that debuted back in 1981, the $75 million-budgeted “Dreamgirls” is poised to not only replicate (and maybe even surpass) the commercial success of “Chicago,” but also its recognition during awards season with Oscar nominations in all the key categories.
“Dreamgirls” tells the story of Effie (Jennifer Hudson), Deena (Beyonce Knowles) and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose), an up-and-coming singing trio from Detroit in the 1960’s known as The Dreamettes. They are discovered by an aggressive manager named Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), who gives them the golden opportunity to sing back-up for popular R&B sensation James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy). But as they become top-selling artists in their own right (as the newly-named Dreams), original lead singer Effie is pushed by the wayside, and they soon discover that the price of fame can be too much to pay.
With a premise like that, you’d swear that “Dreamgirls” is based on the rise and fall of Diana Ross and the Supremes. While it’s never been officially acknowledged as such, it’s hard not to draw the overt similarities between their doppelgangers – Deena as the divine Miss Ross, Curtis Taylor Jr. as Motown impresario Berry Gordy and James “Thunder” Early as a cross between James Brown, Little Richard and Marvin Gaye.
But as written and directed by Condon, the heart and soul of “Dreamgirls” belongs to the Florence Ballard-inspired Effie, the stubborn, temperamental and extremely talented lead singer who is professionally and personally jilted by Taylor in favor of the more beautiful Deena.
And as Effie, former “American Idol” contestant Jennifer Hudson does right by Jennifer Holliday (who famously originated the role on Broadway) with a spectacular, revelatory, star-making feature film debut. As a result, she flat-out steals the movie – even from recording superstar Beyonce Knowles, who, while well cast as Deena, comes across as under-developed and passive until more than halfway through, when Effie is fired from the group.
And as a testament to Hudson’s performance, it’s at this point where “Dreamgirls” unravels a bit and loses its focus and energy. Perhaps in an effort to keep the running time down to an accessible 2 hours and 5 minutes, Condon’s screenplay short-changes characterization and relies on familiar show business rise-and-fall stereotypes to support the story, for while we see many of the established relationships fall apart, we never actually see them developed enough to get together in the first place.
But Hudson’s is not the only star to shine, as Eddie Murphy does his best work in years – if not ever – with a career-defining, Oscar-worthy performance. Perhaps he could relate to James “Thunder” Early – a once popular performer whose best days are behind him – but Murphy’s performance is so strong that it will hopefully change his focus to do more challenging, R-rated, dramatic work in the future as opposed to wasting his talents on high-paying, PG-rated, family fare like “The Nutty Professor” and “Dr. Dolittle.”
Given that the film is rounded out with terrific turns by Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx, Tony-winner Anika Noni Rose, Danny Glover as Early’s longtime manager and Keith Robinson as Effie’s songwriting brother, there’s not a false note to be found in the movie. It’s also worth noting that thanks to the cast of “Dreamgirls” – not to mention Forest Whitaker in “The Last King of Scotland,” Will Smith in “The Pursuit of Happyness,” Djimon Hounsou in “Blood Diamond” and Derek Luke in “Catch a Fire” – next year’s Oscars are shaping up to be a milestone event with more potential nominations for African-American actors in motion picture history.
But really, “Dreamgirls” is all about the music. And unlike other big screen musicals, where the performers break out into song while in the middle of a conversation, most of the musical numbers here are part of the concert and recording studio performances featured within the narrative. So whether it’s Jennifer Hudson belting out “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” or Eddie Murphy bringing the house down with “Steppin’ to the Bad Side,” there’s no doubt that “Dreamgirls” will leave you feeling so mesmerized, giddy and excited that you’ll want to rush out and see it again as soon as humanly possible.