Chicago scribe Condon has assembled a Dream cast
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****Distributor: Paramount/DreamWorksCast: Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson and Anika Noni RoseDirector/Screenwriter: Bill CondonProducer: Laurence MarkGenre: MusicalRating: PG-13 for language, some sexuality and drug contentRunning time: 130 min.Release date: December 15, 2006 NY/LA/SF, December 25 exp, January 19, 2007 wide
“Does this mean we’re not gonna be famous now?” asks the all-girl singing trio who opens Bill Condon’s exhilarating, spit-shined Dreamgirls by losing a Detroit-area talent contest. Their as-yet unanswered plea is a lament from the R&B past that echoes smoothly into the celebrity-obsessed present. If nothing else, Dreamgirls, based on the 1981 Broadway musical that won six Tonys, will be viewed as a battle cry for every plucky, reality show-devouring wannabe who has stepped off a bus hoping for stardom. Indeed, we don’t even know where Effie (Jennifer Hudson), Deena (Beyonce Knowles) and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) came from, meaning they came from Nowhere, the most popular place in America from which to escape and become a star.
Like so many contestants from the Fox reality phenomenon American Idol, where eventual Oscar nominee Jennifer Hudson was discovered, the Dreamettes, as they are collectively known, want fame. And, though they lose the talent competition, they gain a manager, a shrewd, jerry-curled viper named Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx). A used car salesman who’ll accept your apology before you admit having anything to apologize for, Taylor’s first step is to elbow out the girls’ manager (Danny Glover, always a pleasure) and arrange for the trio to sing backup for R&B firebrand James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy).
Early’s retooled act is a success, so Taylor takes a risk, aiming his latest tune, “Cadillac Car” at a wider, more lucrative white audience. Here, Condon (Kinsey, Gods and Monsters) again mixes musical numbers with topical themes as he did in his script for Chicago. In that 2002 Oscar-winning film, media manipulation in Roaring ‘20s Chi-Town transferred easily to O.J.’s America. In Dreamgirls, the topic is assimilation and the willingness of Civil Rights-era blacks to associate with those who acquiesce to their marginalization — if the ultimate goal is less marginalization and more coin. Taylor even arranges a potential suicide booking at a white and uptight Miami club. The patrons are insulted by Early’s sexually explicit on-stage gyrations, but the evening isn’t a total bust: Taylor decides the girls are ready to break out on their own.
Rechristened the Dreams, Taylor makes Deena the lead singer, even though Effie has the better voice. But, as television becomes the culture’s dominant medium, the beautiful Deena easily eclipses the chunky Effie. This becomes the movie’s central conflict and the portion that betrays its real-life inspiration, when Diana Ross was elevated to lead singer of The Supremes over Florence Ballard. Beyonce Knowles (The Pink Panther) has acted in a number of films to very little effect. But Deena is a more appropriate fit, since she’s a passive character who only flowers as a decision-maker towards the end. Knowles sells both sides of Deena while giving cinematographer Tobias Schliessler’s camera a soft, preternaturally beautiful personage to capture.
But the heart and soul of the group and the movie is Hudson’s Effie. Formerly known only as “American Idol” flotsam, Hudson gives a fantastic, full-bodied, emotionally convincing debut performance. Also inspired is Eddie Murphy, who is willing to bare all the lines in his 45-year-old face to make Early’s descent all the more tragic. It’s a career-best showing for Murphy who commits equally to Early’s on-stage zenith and coke-snorting nadir. The character also gives Murphy a grand opportunity to revel in the musical legitimacy that eluded him when perpetrating mid-‘80s pop felonies like “Party All the Time.”
This dream cast is crucial because the detail and depth of the characterizations don’t always match those of the production itself. Condon’s creation is visually overstuffed, but it’s quite a meal, as every wisp of smoke curls sexily around the frame and theatrical shafts of light are always on standby to showcase the ladies’ curvaceous bodies. Sharen Davis’ costumes and John Myhre’s production design spare no creative expense, yet they never resort to camp, although the disco version of “One Night Only” evokes painful memories of Sylvester Stallone’s apocalyptically cheesy “Staying Alive.”
The music throughout is brassy, sassy and always legit-sounding as it tackles numerous musical forms. Henry Krieger, who composed the score for the original stage version, has written four new tunes, including “Patience,” a protest number sung by Early. The show-stopper comes when Effie is thrown out of the group, leading to the one-two punch of “It’s All Over” followed by “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Hudson’s wounded performance and Condon’s slow, climatic build nail you to your seat, resulting in the 10 most thrilling minutes of American cinema in 2006.
It’s a high that the rest of the film, while certainly maintaining its entertainment value, won’t achieve again. Moving into the ‘70s, Effie has become a welfare mother and footnote to a group that’s been enjoying years of uninterrupted fame without her. Taylor’s Svengali touch starts to wane after getting caught stealing “One Night Only” from Effie’s songwriter brother C.C. (Keith Robinson) and reworking it for Deena. But, naturally, acceptance and closure are achieved by the final number, the bittersweet title tune.
With its breakneck pace, wall-to-wall music and blank-check production elements, Dreamgirls is a crowd-pleaser of the first order, melding cinematic and theatrical sensibilities while honoring the original Broadway version that ran for almost four years until it closed in 1985. Critics and fans could spend hours arguing over director and cast, but it’s hard to imagine many combinations achieving greater success than what Condon has accomplished. - Mark Keizer