Film: Dreamgirls

January 2007

Reviewed by John Kenrick

In the end, it's all about Effie.

Sure, the long-running Broadway musical Dreamgirls swirls through the lives and times of a myriad of people, all connected with a fictional Motown "girl group" that more than vaguely resembles the Supremes. But when all is said and done, Dreamgirls is really about Effie, a gifted singer who is tossed from the group, then overcomes professional evils and personal demons before rejoining the Dreams for their bittersweet final bow. Such was certainly the case with the original stage production, which brought immediate (if temporary) stardom to it's Effie, Jennifer Holliday.

And such is certainly the case here, with former American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson making a truly electrifying screen debut. She acts and sings with extraordinary power and flair, and gives audiences a reason to really care about this film. Her rendition of the searing "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going" rips the screen apart. But as with her equally talented predecessor, the question is whether or not show business will find other worthy roles for this unique performer. If so, then let the drums roll out, for a new star is born.

There are many outstanding performances in Dreamgirls. In fact, I think it fair to say that with one disappointing exception, this is about as fine a cast as could ever be assembled to film this material. If you skip back ten or twenty years, who could have matched the performances that this specific combination of talents offers here? Jamie Foxx is wonderfully believable as Curtis, the agent fueled by ruthless ambition, and Eddie Murphy is a knockout as James Early, an R&B star based on the fiery James Brown. Broadway buffs will enjoy seeing all-too brief appearances by musical stage veterans Hinton Battle, Ken Page, and Michael-Leon Wooley -- and a painfully short but sensational number by Loretta Divine, one of the original Broadway Dreamgirls.

As the Diana Ross-like lead singer Deena Jones, Beyonce Knowles has the beauty and voice but little of the charisma required -- her shortcomings are most glaring in the newly added solo "Listen." Anika Noni Rose (Tony winner for her performance in Caroline or Change) and Sharon Leal are just fine as the other members of the group, handsome Keith Robinson is a scene stealer as Effie's songwriting brother C.C., and the ever reliable Danny Glover gives the film crucial weight as Marty, the older agent who resists the unscrupulous Curtis.

Comparisons between the stage and screen version of Dreamgirls are inevitable, but ultimately unnecessary. The original score by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen is exceptionally well served, and their new numbers make excellent additions -- which future stage productions may insist on using.

Bill Condon's screenplay does an unusually fine job of placing this story in its historical context without turning it into a history lesson. There are moments where I am not sure about Condon's decisions as a director -- why certain scenes are done as dialogue rather than song, or the sometimes jarring transitions from song-as-introspection to song-in-performance. But such questions eventually bow to the clear fact that this film is a directorial triumph for Condon. One must admit that Dreamgirls was never the strongest bit of musical story telling, and its narrative is actually strengthened here. After such "sure-fire" projects as Phantom of the Opera, Rent and The Producers fizzled so miserably on screen, it is a pleasure to find that Condon's Dreamgirls crackles with style, energy and soul. For that alone, musical buffs will forever owe this man a debt of gratitude.

However, I suspect that much of this film's ultimate reputation will ride on it's amazing Effie, Jennifer Hudson. If she becomes the star she deserves to be, Dreamgirls will be remembered as the beginning. If she does not, then this film will be remembered as a dazzling sign of what might have been.

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