1. This is a good film getting too much hype.
2. Eddie Murphy deserves an Academy Award nomination.
Don’t get me wrong. “Dreamgirls” is a good film. It moves fast, entertains, is filled with good music and a couple of good performances. But it is not a great film. Because of all of the hype, people will go to see this film expecting to be blown away. When what they actually experience is only a ‘good’ film, they will feel let down. If people went in with lower expectations, they would probably enjoy the film more.
Eddie Murphy plays James “Thunder” Early, a ‘James Brown’-esque singer. Now, you may think, as I did “Wow, he’s just going to use the impersonation he did so well during his years on ‘Saturday Night Live’.” But the role is so much more than that and Murphy is able to show the true range of his acting ability.
In case you have been living in a cave: “Dreamgirls” is a fictionalized look at the early career of Diana Ross and the Supremes. The Dreamettes, a local girl group from Detroit, enters a talent contest and catches the eye of Curtis (Jamie Foxx), a used car salesman desperate to become a music producer. He watches the group led by Effie (Jennifer Hudson), backed by Deena (Beyonce Knowles) and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose), sing up a storm and bring the crowd to their feet. Some quick negotiations with Early’s manager (Danny Glover) lead to a gig singing backup for the famous musician. Now, Curtis needs to introduce himself to the Dreamettes. After helping Early become a bigger, breakout star, Curtis decides to let the Dreams tour on their own. But he wants Deena to front the group, shocking everyone including Effie, Curtis’ girlfriend. Everyone agrees, for the good of the group. As the Dreams become more famous, Effie becomes more resentful and eventually parts ways with the group. Curtis has no trouble finding a replacement and the group soon becomes ‘Deena and the Dreams’. Curtis has even bigger dreams; a record label, movies, television. And he will do anything to get there. Deena begins to notice some of these bad things and starts to look for a way out.
Written and directed by Bill Condon (“Gods and Monsters”, “Kinsey”) and adapted from the play by Michael Bennett, “Dreamgirls” is an old-fashioned Hollywood musical. It is nice to see this and see a good example of the genre. But this film would never have happened without the success of “Moulin Rouge” and “Chicago”.
Condon, who helped adopt “Chicago” for the big screen, has done a good job of integrating musical numbers into the story. This is the type of musical where the characters spontaneously burst into song, which become extensions of the character’s dialogue, making the transition virtually seamless. I have never seen the play, but I was surprised by the lack of choreographed dancers. There are only two points when songs are accompanied by old fashioned production numbers including choreographed dancers, and these are fun to watch. But the majority of the songs are performed by one person or a small group.
I was also surprised by how much of the story of the Supremes is “borrowed” for the film. From what I know, they follow the story pretty faithfully, changing names and places, until the end. The ending is significantly changed and I am not sure why as it robs the film of a lot of dramatic potential.
Condon does a great job of bringing together all of the production elements to successfully evoke the periods of the film. As the Dreams rise through the ranks, they play the fancy nightclubs of the 50s up through the discos of the 70s. As their fortunes rise, the décor of their personal surroundings becomes more and more elaborate and help evoke the taste of the era.
Jamie Foxx plays Curtis, the Berry Gordy-like Svengali who attaches himself to Deena and the Dreams and strives to help them achieve fame. Foxx’s performance is one note and lackluster. The character’s obsession is aided by this same one note nature, showing another example of his drive, but Foxx delivers practically every line in the same voice, showing little, if any emotion. A couple of times Curtis is seen staring at Deena and Effie, looking through them, in an effort to show his feelings towards them. Even towards the end, when things start to crumble, he shows little emotion.
Beyonce Knowles can sing, but she is a weak actress. She is better suited to small roles in films like “Austin Powers” and “The Pink Panther”, films that allow her to speak as little dialogue as possible and use her required music video to provide promotion on MTV. She simply isn’t a good enough actress to make Deena a real person. It also doesn’t help that Deena is made such an understanding and nice person. She supports Effie and doesn’t want to lead the group, she has to be persuaded. Because the film makes her so saintly, she never has an opportunity to show any dramatic force.
Eddie Murphy’s performance as James “Thunder” Early is the best and most interesting in the film. As a well-known singer, he is also a well-known womanizer and agrees to let the Dreams do backup because he is interested in Lorrell (Leal), the youngest member of the group. Murphy brilliantly brings this character trait to life. As soon as they hit the road, he begins the seduction and quickly realizes it will take a little longer than planned. Over the course of the film, Early changes, grows and regresses along with the rest of the industry. Murphy makes all of these character changes, good and bad, believable and real.
This is something I never thought I would say but Eddie Murphy deserves an Academy Award nomination for the role.
Jennifer Hudson plays Effie, the discarded member of the group, the fourth Dream. Her character is the best singer and her story is the most dramatic, so she naturally comes across as more interesting than Deena. Hudson does a very good job of showing Effie’s talent, struggles and triumphs. Her show stopper number “I Will Tell You I Am Not Going” is also the most powerful and memorable song in the film. Because her performance is so good, it makes Beyonce’s performance seem all the more weak. If you are a well-known performer and play the weaker member of the group, you need to be able to make the role resonate. Beyonce doesn’t do that and every time Hudson appears on screen, we are reminded of that.
Think about it. Beyonce is playing the self-acknowledged weaker singer of the group and the best song is performed by the best singer in the group. How does this help Beyonce exactly? Hudson wipes up the floor with her.
“Dreamgirls”, despite the problems, is a fun film to watch.