January 30, 2007 > Dreamgirls
By Julie Grabowski
"Dreamgirls" has had its own dream of getting to the big screen since the late 1980s, collecting and trading such names as Whitney Houston, Lauren Hill, and director Joel Schumacher along the way. But only after the enormous success of fellow musical "Chicago" in 2002 was the dream seemingly within reach, and producers put the project into the hands of writer/director Bill Condon. His adaptation of the 1981 Tony Award winning Broadway show gives us the impassioned and volatile show business world of dreams and ambition, love, money, image, and heartbreak.
A talent contest at the Detroit Theatre in the 1960s introduces Effie (Jennifer Hudson), Deena (Beyonce Knowles), and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) as "The Dreamettes," a singing group that has been together since childhood. After their dynamic crowd-pleasing number fails to win, the dejected trio gets an astounding offer to be the backup singers for headliner James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy). Effie is the only one dismissive of the prospect, declaring, "Singing backup is a trap." But she is soon swayed by the sweet talk of car salesman/music entrepreneur Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx) and the pleas of the other girls, launching them into the glittery, glamorous world of their dreams.
When other singers start using Jimmy's moves, he laments that he needs "something," and Curtis steers him in the direction of a new sound, claiming they need to get his music to a broader audience with an eye to the pop charts. But Jimmy gets what he really wants when Lorrell finally gives in to his attentions. Effie and Curtis carry on a romance of their own while Deena smilingly remains innocent and proper.
After the fantastic performance of "Steppin' to the Bad Side" Jimmy goes on the road and Curtis grants the wish that ambitious Effie has been pushing for: the girls' own act. But the news turns into a bitter pill for Effie when she is told Deena will be singing lead. Outraged and hurt at being demoted by Deena's beauty and inferior voice, brother and composer C.C. (Keith Robinson) and Curtis try to soothe her, insisting that they need a "lighter sound." Through the song "Family" C.C. insists that it's more than one person; the dream is big enough for everyone to share. Effie relents and "Deena Jones and The Dreams" is born.
But the dream does turn into one person as Curtis continues to pull Deena to the forefront and transfers his affections from Effie, keeping her in the background, accusing her of being a troublemaker for the group. Effie's resentment and anger finally explode. "You stole my dream, Deena, and you stole my man," she storms. Refusing to back down and cull her voice and passions, she is replaced by Michelle (Sharon Leal), causing her to lash out at everyone and unleash the powerful and heartrending, pinnacle performance "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." Hudson's Effie induces goose bumps and moves to tears, however go she does, disappearing into obscurity while "Deena Jones and The Dreams" skyrocket into fame and fortune.
As the years pass, relationships become strained and Deena and Jimmy find the dream life oppressive and constricting as image and a saleable product are pushed to the exclusion of all else. Lives must be recreated, hurts left behind as fractured relationships seek mending, while some can never be healed.
The power of "Dreamgirls" cannot be denied, and despite the absent Best Picture and Best Director nods, the film still leads the Academy honors with 8 nominations, including the expected Golden Globe winners Murphy and Hudson for supporting roles, as well as best art direction, costume design, and sound mixing. Three out of the four original songs composed for the film were also nominated: "Listen," "Love You I Do," and "Patience."
It is a bit of a mystery why Beyonce Knowles was nominated as a lead actress for the Golden Globes when she has little presence -leading or otherwise - as Deena. Knowles is a performer and suitably does her job at that, but is easy to forget. She only commands attention with the song "Listen" in which she is the most alive. Jamie Foxx is similarly uninspiring; you get the feeling that any number of other actors could have filled Curtis's shoes. The true leads are to be found in Hudson and Murphy, who fully embody their vivid characters.
Jennifer Hudson is outstanding as the bold and belting Effie, clearly deserving of all the awards and accolades that have rained down upon her. Effie is the heart of the film, and though she can be harsh and haughty, you feel for her at every bad turn. Hudson will without a doubt soon be adding an Oscar to her collection. As the effervescent Jimmy, Eddie Murphy reveals the heavy hitting side of his abilities that have been hidden by his comedic notoriety. He delivers surprisingly solid singing, and while Jimmy may not always be likeable, Murphy creates an engaging quality that you can't ignore. Keith Robinson also makes an impression as C.C., sensitive and caring and every bit the dreamer who wants an honest product of the heart.
So when compiling your movie checklist this Oscar season, leave a space for "Dreamgirls." It's exciting and flashy with great music and a moving story that urges us to remember: "All you have to do is dream."