Knight at the Movies Archives
Bill Condon's musical version of the stage classic arrives 25 years after taking Broadway by storm: everyone take a deep breath
Last year we got The Producers, Rent and Phantom of the Opera. Hairspray and Sweeney Todd are on tap for ’07 and right now we have
Dreamgirls in movie theatres and both the Streisand 70s camp musical A Star Is Born and the outrageous oddball Spanish
musical 20 Centimeters on DVD. So yes, for show tune queens like myself it’s very definitely beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
At the conclusion of my review for this year’s other big screen movie musical, the horribly disappointing Idlewild, I wrote, “When it
comes to musicals I want the whole meal AND the dessert or nothing at all.” With Dreamgirls I get my wish. The movie is
tremendously entertaining, moves quickly, and has real moments of heat. It’s in a league with dozens of other tremendously
entertaining, fast paced musicals with show stopping moments here and there. And these moments – provided by newcomer
Jennifer Hudson, Beyoncé Knowles and Eddie Murphy – are going to enter Legendary status. But they are moments.
The movie is good and looks good (out director Bill Condon has filmed and had it designed in the artificial, eye popping style of
other traditional backstage showbiz musicals like Funny Girl, Gypsy or Sparkle – which also FINALLY arrives on DVD in early January).
But those musicals were not the Second Coming or the Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread and Dreamgirls isn’t either. Chicago and
Cabaret it ain’t (and doesn’t need to be) so don’t get all "sticky moon candy" and wreck it with outside expectations.
Like other backstage properties, Dreamgirls relies on the tried and true rags to riches and fame story of an individual or group (in
this case three singers at the dawn of the 60s ala the Supremes) accompanied by heartbreak, catchy songs, blistering ballads, and
that old star sickness. This last strange illness – a sort of self-disgust or malaise mixed with mucho narcissism and usually
accompanied by excessive alcohol or drug intake – seems to have afflicted dozens of fictional screen characters (and plenty of their
real life counterparts as well). In this case it is Knowles playing Deena the Pretty One with the teeny-tiny voice (read: Diana Ross)
who reaches for the liquor bottles after leaving behind the other two and achieving gigantic – but empty – success as a solo artist.
Newcomer and Chicagoan Jennifer Hudson, on the other hand, gets the plum role of Effie White (read: Florence Ballard), the brash,
difficult and impossibly talented one who has the weight problem. Anika Noni Rose plays Lorrell (read: Mary Wilson) the also pretty
but not terribly distinct third member of the trio who just wants to get along and maybe enjoy a little fling with soul singer James
‘Thunder’ Early (read: Otis Wilson, James Brown, etc.) played by Eddie Murphy in the best role he’s had in years (he’s hands down
this year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner).
As the picture begins the trio has been sloughing it out in a world of crappy gigs and dead end talent contests. But backing up the
notorious womanizer played by Murphy they soon begin to find their footing, helped along by Marty his tough but out dated manager
(Danny Glover). Marty is quickly outwitted by Curtis Taylor, Jr. (read: Berry Gordy, Jr.) played by Jamie Foxx. Foxx sees something
in the Dreamettes but knows he must win Effie’s heart to make his grand scheme take hold. Up to this point the picture has moved
quickly and efficiently through its paces and offered the bonus of an insider’s history lesson on the shady music business of the
early 60s that spelled gold for smart opportunists like the Curtis character (Foxx ends up as the movie’s villain who also suffers from
Then the inevitable heartbreak comes at the midway point after Curtis has replaced Effie as the lead singer with Deena, who is more
comely and more palatable to white audiences eager to shake a tail feather to the watered down versions of the hot “race records.”
Effie also correctly suspects Curtis and Deena are stepping out behind her back and finally Curtis, in a blistering scene fires the
difficult singer. This is the moment everyone has been waiting for – the scene and The Song (“And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going”)
that every Dreamgirls fan knows by heart. Hudson handles the movie’s Judy-Barbra-Bette-Liza moment with assurance and verve.
It's a thrilling performance that erases the ghost of Jennifer Holliday who won a Tony playing Effie on Broadway. On the stage
Holliday’s performance of the song could only be followed by an intermission but what to do in a movie? Though one needs a
breather; needs time to contemplate the amazing tour-de-force by Hudson, Condon rushes us into a campy career montage that
tracks the superstar rise of the group. Because of its placement this to me seemed the movie’s only misstep but again, what to do
with such a moment in a movie?
The film does offer Knowles her own showstopper – a new song written for her and she gives it her all – but Hudson easily knocks her
off the screen each time she appears. To be fair the Deena part is much less interesting. The character as written is completely a
victim, a bystander to her own fame and the machinations of her lover and his plans. Conversely, there’s no doubting that Effie will
have her triumphant return. This revision of the real Supremes story – with Miss Ross’ famous iron willed, diva like behavior excised
and Ballad’s tragic decline into alcoholism and poverty replaced by a happy outcome – is actually a very satisfying change. This is a
musical after all and Happy Endings, even if they’re out of line with the true story, are what the audience ordered.
The best news about Dreamgirls – and aside from Hudson and Murphy’s performances, its only other real triumph – is that in making
the transition from stage to screen it wasn’t wrecked – the way Evita, A Chorus Line, The Wiz and many others were. That may seem
like puny praise but it’s actually the opposite. There’s a lot to be said for a director who understands that a hit show doesn’t need
much rethinking for the movies. Bill Condon has had the courage to leave the essence of Dreamgirls alone and in doing so has
made a movie that unlike all those “fixed up” stage to screen musicals will continue to satisfy from here on out.
I TOLD You I Wasn't Going:
12-27-06 Windy City Times Knight at the Movies Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.