Celebrity is the bane of American culture. What good does it do us to see pictures of Tom Cruise's baby or read analyses of Angelina Jolie's decision to bear a child in Africa? I have high regard for Jennifer Anniston and Nicole Kidman as actresses, but I don't really need to know whether they're still carrying torches for their ex-husbands and whom they're dating since their divorces. Hundreds of thousands of people are killed in Iraq, and the American media wonders whether Britney Spears can sustain her career (she has one?) since being photographed without her underpants. On the other hand, talent, which often breeds celebrity, is a powerful social force. Jackie Robinson dispelled pretty persuasively racist notions that African Americans couldn't compete with white athletes. And perhaps nothing affected a positive stirring of the American melting pot more thoroughly than the Motown music revolution of the 1960s that made soul music a radio mainstay and black singers as popular with white teens as with their black peers, an egalitarian cultural supplement to the civil rights movement. Screenwriter/director Bill Condon's Dreamgirls references that essential cultural transformation and in the process, introduces a dynamic new star.
Adapted from the long-running Broadway hit, Dreamgirls is the story of three poor Detroit girls who try to sing their way out of the ghetto. Loosely based on the rise of the Supremes, the Dreamettes, later the Dreams, arrive with genuine talent and catch a cultural tidal wave in a rush to fame and fortune. Initially, they are fronted by Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), a stout young woman with a voice as big as Wyoming. Her friends Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles) and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) sing and dance at her side. They get their first big break when they are chosen by rising star James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy) to be his back-up group. An even bigger break arrives when they are embraced by former Cadillac dealer Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx) who has decided he can make a fortune as a music manager.
Taylor, however, makes changes in the group's structure that both propels it to stardom and, at the same time, tear them apart. He moves the women out from behind Early to become a headline act on their own. And more important, he switches Deena, who is slinkier and better looking, into the group's lead. This decision is perhaps commercially savvy, but it also proves emotionally devastating to Effie, who can't abide a demotion based on her looks rather than her voice. In a departure that will recall that of Florence Ballard when Diana Ross commanded the spotlight in the Supremes, Effie quits the Dreams and stumbles back into economic hard times while her former partners rise to ever greater heights.
Dreamgirls was an old-fashioned backstage musical when it began its New York run a quarter-century ago, and Condon's cinematic adaptation attempts no rethinking. The show is big and brassy and emotionally affecting without ever proving comprehensively convincing. We get a lot of rousing production numbers with the appropriate glitter for the time period, but only the sketchiest backstory for the characters. Almost nothing happens with Lorrell, who could have been developed as the woman in the middle. And for that matter, we get too little insight into Deena's motivations. Diana Ross is said to have schemed for the spotlight, but Deena seems only to do as she's told, a mere pawn in Taylor's promotional chess game. Dreamgirls also, almost shockingly, fails to capture the magic of the Motown music it references. The picture's production majesty pulls us through, but we don't go home with a musical grasp of how Motown held its ground alongside the British invasion of the same era.
But in most ways, none of this matters, certainly not while we're still in the theater. Based on legendary Motown promoter Berry Gordy, Foxx's Taylor is nicely complex -- smart but ruthless, commercially prescient but personally restricted by having little in the way of conventional conscience. Knowles gets to play the lead in the Dreams, but her real accomplishment is a willingness to let her character play second fiddle. That takes professional guts. Meanwhile, Eddie Murphy has simply never had a part like this before, and he doesn't let the opportunity pass. His singing, dancing, stage charisma and flagrantly fragile off-stage personality are all entirely convincing. Absolutely think Oscar nomination. Without question though, Dreamgirls' sensation is provided by Jennifer Hudson. Several years ago, she finished sixth on TV's American Idol. She definitely finishes first in this film. The audience I saw the film with rewarded her numbers with screams and responded to her defiant "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" with an ovation. Hudson would seem a short odds favorite for an Oscar. Let's just hope that the fickle world of show business will find a long life for a talent capable of bringing people to their feet.
- 2006 DREAMWORKS LLC and PARAMOUNT PICTURES
- The Dreamsgirls, Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose), Deena (Beyonce Knowles) and Effie (Jennifer Hudson) sing their way into the spotlight.