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DreamGirls (A Movie Review)

Updated: May 4, 2022


Starring Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson, Eddie Murphy, Anika Noni Rose, Keith Robinson, Danny Glover, Sharon Leal, Hinton Battle ,Yvette Nicole Brown, Yvette Cason, Loretta Divine, Dawnn Lewis, Eddie Mekka, Jaleel White, John Krasinski and John Lithgow.

Screenplay by Bill Condon.

Directed by Bill Condon.

Distributed by Dreamworks SKG Pictures.  131 minutes.  Rated PG-13.

Dreamgirls is a 25-year old Broadway musical, not-so-vaguely based on the story of the birth of Motown Records and specifically their biggest star act: Diana Ross and the Supremes.  The play was a minor sensation when it played the boards in the early 80s, spawning a top-40 hit single and even providing a short-lived music and acting career for breakout show star Jennifer Holliday.  However, you’d hardly have expected, a generation later, that some of the biggest black actors in Hollywood would line up to play a part in bringing this project to the big screen.

The door was opened by Chicago‘s success five years ago (and in fairness, that play was even older at the time).  While the hit musicals that have been brought to the cineplex in Chicago‘s wake have been rather hit or miss (Phantom of the Opera or Rent, anyone?), Dreamgirls, more than any, comes pre-sold with a sheen of perceived quality and high hopes.  For the most part, it reaches those heights.

The story and passions of Dreamgirls are big.  As big as Jennifer Hudson’s calculated-to-be show-stopping performance of the musical’s signature tune, “And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going.”

I have to admit – I know it’s considered sacrilege to say this with all the praise heaped on Hudson’s performance – but I’ve just never liked the song.  It is as awkward and clunky as its title.  I didn’t like it when Jennifer Holliday had a hit single of it from the Original Broadway Cast album in 1982 and I still don’t like it all these years later.  Jennifer Hudson does a very good job of singing the song (a little over-the-top, but that’s the whole point, I guess), but it just doesn’t move me as much as everyone else.  In fact, I personally thought Hudson performed several other songs much better than she does this one.

This is actually my biggest problem with the movie.  Most of the songs in Dreamgirls seemed a little weak.  I only knew two songs previously – “And I Am Telling You…” and “One Night Only,” which seems to be the best song here.  This is not necessarily a fatal flaw.  I only knew one song from Chicago before I saw it a few years ago and loved the soundtrack – and maybe upon repeated viewing of Dreamgirls it will grow on me, but on first listen not that many songs really stood out.  Very little of the music actually sounded like the Motown sound – and in the few cases when they did, specifically a short tune by a band supposed to be The Jackson 5ive, the songwriting borderlines on plagiarism.

However, if the music was a bit limp, the story and acting are stellar.

Possibly the biggest current name in the cast is music superstar Beyonce Knowles.  She plays the Diana Ross character; the beautiful girl with a technically proficient but slightly personality-less voice who starts out as the backup singer to a more talented vocalist, but eventually takes over through her attractiveness and blank-slate voice.

This is a brave move for the singing superstar, essentially acknowledging (through her character) that her singing voice is inferior to her less-known co-star and she is skating by on her looks.  In fact, Beyonce throws her diva self into the film wholeheartedly and becomes more likable for her efforts.  This is also the closest that Beyonce has come to an actual competent acting job in her nascent movie career.  She’s still certainly a little overshadowed by her more technically proficient castmates and she still looks most comfortable when she is singing – but her acting style is without doubt not as noticeably awkward as it was in… say… last summer’s The Pink Panther.

However, just like in the story, Knowles is trumped by her less-photogenic but more explosive fellow Dreamgirl.  Jennifer Hudson – who was previously best known for coming in seventh in the Fantasia season of American Idol, of all things – is a powerful force, both as an actress and as a singer.  She comes into a movie that stars some huge names like Knowles, Jamie Foxx, Danny Glover and Eddie Murphy and blows them all away.  If this movie doesn’t make her a star then there is no justice.

Most stories you’ve been reading about the movie have compared Murphy’s character to James Brown – in fact, Murphy even plays the role somewhat like the godfather of soul – but the actual character arc is supposed to be based on the life of Marvin Gaye, I believe.  The drug abuse, the refusal to stay within the cookie-cutter styles, the sexual addiction, the bitter divorce album, even the inevitable tragic death (though the musical actually debuted on stage a couple of years before Gaye was murdered by his father): all seemed to be based on Gaye.  Not to mention the fact that Gaye was an integral part of the Motown family, Brown never was a part of the label.

Still, no matter who he was playing, this is the most engaged Murphy has appeared as an actor in years, maybe even decades.  After so many phoned-in performances, finally Murphy shows the spark which made him a superstar so many years ago.

Jamie Foxx, playing the stand-in for Motown founder Berry Gordy, has less to do here.  He’s just fine at the role, but his character is almost cartoonishly selfish and vicious and his only real defining feature is greed.

Dreamgirls may not be quite as good as you’ve heard, but it still is a rousing entertainment.  (12/06)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2007  All rights reserved.  Posted: January 6, 2007.

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