If only they had let Bill Condon
direct Chicago instead of just writing the screenplay. As Condon shows with his razzle-dazzle adaptation of the 1981 Tony-winning musical Dreamgirls, he would have been quite an improvement on Chicago director Rob Marshall -- who, before he gave us a mostly-Chinese cast for Memoirs of a Geisha, tried unconvincingly to prove that Renée Zellweger
could sing and Richard Gere
could dance. It didn't quite kill the movie (the material is almost indestructible), but made one wonder what it could have been with some actual professionals in the lead. Condon makes no such mistake with Dreamgirls, finding a cast with just the right mix of theatrical chops and movie star charisma. In short: If anybody's thinking of doing a film of Jelly's Last Jam, they should see what Eddie Murphy
's schedule looks like.
The story is just about perfect for a musical: simple enough to hang a number of tunes on, and not so complex that it requires an inordinate amount of dialogue. A quick pastiche of a number of popular R&B groups from the 1960s and '70s, the musical follows one talented Supremes-like trio of singers, the Dreamettes, as they get their big break doing backup for James Brown-esque screecher James "Thunder" Early and secure the services of ambitious proto-music mogul Curtis Taylor. The fortunes of some will rise, others will fall, trusts will be betrayed, and beliefs about love and friendship will be tested -- basically nothing that can't be best expressed by a soaring ballad. Article continues below
Dreamgirls fairly jumps out of the gate with startling impatience, doing everything possible to get the audience's attention short of having the performers actually reach out from the screen and drag people up on stage. The entire beginning -- set backstage at a Detroit talent show -- is a barrage of spotlights, flashy and coordinated outfits, and neck-breaking music-video editing; the remainder of the film lets up a little, but not much. The energetic songs come fast and quick, Condon and his brilliant cast snapping them out like there's no shortage. Fortunately, there isn't.
The genius of the original musical was setting itself in such a fecund period for R&B and soul, thus providing a deep well from which to draw inspiration. It was that period starting when songs that were popular on African-American radio ("race records," as they were called) were either ignored or stolen and watered down for the white mainstream, moving into the golden era of the Motown groups and stretching up until the early stirrings of disco. Dreamgirls hits, sometimes obliquely, on a number of big historical moments from this period, such as the scene where Taylor (Jamie Foxx
) comes up with the idea of payola to bribe DJs to get the girls' songs on the air. The film is hardly weighted down by history, however, as there's always another number to get to, or another fight to resolve; most of the latter being caused by Effie White (Jennifer Hudson
), the loudest and most talented of the trio.
Condon took a risk by casting a relative unknown (well, save for American Idol) in this key role, but it more than pays off. Cast aside by Taylor fairly early on, once the chillingly business-like producer decides she's too much trouble, Effie spends a good deal of time in exile, working on a comeback. As everyone knows, Hudson more than holds up her end in the singing department, rattling the rafters each and every time it's called for. But fortunately she's a good enough actress to keep her character likeable, admirably tough instead of annoyingly stubborn. Foxx plays things closer to the vest than he normally does, which gives his character a chilling villainy at times, but comes dangerously close to non-acting at others -- with a similarly muted turn in Miami Vice
, this could mark a disturbing trend for a normally explosive performer.
The biggest and most pleasant surprise, however, is Eddie Murphy as Early. When he could have fallen back on his well-tooled James Brown impression, Murphy instead mixes up a number of different performers into his act and adds his own swagger and polish, while not forgetting the painful vulnerability of a once ground-breaking artist who's terrified about being left behind (there's more than a little autobiography in this performance). It's as though a curtain has been raised from Murphy: He knew and we knew all along that he could pull off something like this, but it just took the right film to make everybody realize once again, what a star he is.
With all the killer tunes and star turns (even the normally sleep-inducing Beyoncé Knowles
, as the Diana Ross-like Deena Jones, knocks it out of the park) it's surprising in the end that Dreamgirls isn't a complete winner. Maybe too much ground is covered too fast, too much attention paid to flash and artifice, when more groundwork should have been laid. For some reason, even with all the powerful emotions unleashed during the film, there's a strange hollowness at the end, once all the bright lights have dimmed and echoes faded. Maybe it's too much to ask that a musical deliver knockout songs and a solidly-constructed story at the same time, as the two often work at cross purposes. More likely, we should just be happy that Hollywood has figured out how to make musicals again, even if they only come around every four years or so.