Film review by: Witney Seibold
Bill Condon has a deep love of musicals and musical theater. He wrote Rob Marshall’s “Chicago,” loved by the Academy and most of the world, although not by me. He loves bright lights, loud music, and dramatic bombast, usually only found on the stage. His musical interests, sadly, did not translate well to the darkly funny and biting “Chicago,” but fare much better in the superior “Dreamgirls,” a musical showcase musical if ever there was one. Condon still does best when he’s quiet and thoughtful behind the camera (as in the James Whale biopic “Gods and Monsters,” and the underrated “Kinsey”).
The story of “Dreamgirls” is a fictional retelling of the early days of Motown, and The Supremes in particular (called The Dreamettes in the musical), although it could be from any showbiz picture: The lead singer of The Dreamettes, Effie (Academy Award winner, and “American Idol” also-ran Jennifer Hudson) is loud and talented, but thicker and brassier than her two groupmates Deena (Beyoncé Knowles of Destiny’s Child), and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose). They are noticed at a talent competition by a lecherous manger named Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx), and are thrust into the shining background of James Brown/Marvin Gaye composite James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy). All three girls rocket to fame, but, of course, Effie’s brassiness and weight become an issue, and she is eventually thrown out of the group. Deena becomes the new lead, fame blinds them all, they live high, and face selling out.
The film’s musical numbers are very good, and do service to the off-Broadway original. Jennifer Hudson in particular lends a good deal of soul to the film, and (in the one number which probably won her the little golden man) sings her very heart out at the end of the second act, belting to the heavens about betrayal and love. The glitz and glamour and shine and sheen are maybe a bit too loud and distracting at times, but Condon largely allows the material to stand on its own.
The source material for “Dreamgirls” is, when looked at carefully, actually not too great. Sure, Tom Eyen’s music and book are fine, but the actually story of Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye and the crossover of Motown into 1960s and ‘70s polite white society is a thrilling and daring story in itself, so a fictionalized version can only soften its impact. A bit of this softening is taken into Condon’s film, and will be a bigger issue the more familiar you are with a) the original “Dreamgirls” and b) the true story behind the original “Dreamgirls.” I myself am largely ignorant of a lot of rock history (I read about the true stories in film and rock reviews after I had seen the film), so the details and fudging didn’t hit me too hard. I just sat back and allowed myself to be overwhelmed by the noisy, bright love of music.
The Academy-Award-following world was shocked when “Dreamgirls” was not nominated for Best Picture. It is a good film, but I wouldn’t put it in the top five of 2006. Jennifer Hudson ended up being the big winner, and, well, she actually deserved it.