While currently on an upswing, the number of modern movie musicals remains relatively few and far between. It would seem good, then, that Bill Condon’s film adaptation of the musical Dreamgirls, covering as much territory as it does, should make up for lost ground. And it is resonant — but it often only cuts skin deep.
The musical premiered on Broadway during the 1981-82 season, the brainchild of choreographer-director Michael Bennett, the visionary who conceived A Chorus Line, with book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music provided by Henry Krieger. It quickly became legendary for two reasons: It was one of the few successful, tour-friendly shows with an all-black cast, and it provided a star-making role for one of its stars, Jennifer Holliday, who belted out the show’s signature tune, “And I Am Telling You”, to Grammy and Tony success.
One of Bennett’s aims with the show was to make it more movie-like, in part to address the new Broadway audience as well as to lampoon the use of the movie montages in musicals. Condon, who also adapted Chicago for the big screen, achieves the reverse effect with Dreamgirls, making it more theatrical and subverting the intent of the original.
Dreamgirls begins in Detroit, where Effie Melody White (Jennifer Hudson), a zaftig woman with an even mightier voice, leads a three-girl group named the Dreamettes. Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles) and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) sing backup, though it’s unclear how long they have known each other and how close of friends they really are. After Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a local car dealer and budding manager discovers the group, he conscripts them to tour with James “Thunder” Early (a sensational Eddie Murphy).
Those familiar with either the show or the film will know that the plot, which covers most of the 1960s and 1970s and all of the music revolutions that occurred therein, is based not-so-loosely on the rise and fall of the Supremes, and all the machinations that occurred behind the scenes. In short order, Effie, coarse and unprofessional to a fault, hooks up with Curtis (resembling Berry Gordy, engineer of Motown), only to be replaced by the less talented Deena as both lead singer of the re-christened Dreams and as Curtis’ girlfriend (making Deena a surrogate for Diana Ross, who was married to Gordy as the Supremes dominated the charts). Meanwhile, Lorrell begins a decade-long affair with the narcissistic, married, substance-abusing Early, an amalgam of the late James Brown and Marvin Gaye, among others. (Fun fact #1: 1980s sitcom stars Dawn Lewis of A Different World and Jaleel White of Family Matters make appearances).
Condon cuts a wide swath, placing these personal betrayals among a much larger landscape, and it doesn’t always work. Too much happens off-screen. We never see a glimpse of Curtis’ relationship with Effie, only hear them talk about it. Lorrell, who insists she will not be a part of Early’s philandering, suddenly changes her mind with no explanation. Deena yells at her, praising the virtues of remaining chaste, and then all of a sudden Effie announces that she is on to Deena’s affair with Curtis. Curtis sings to Deena that he loved her since he first saw her, but cinematic syntax does not say that at all. How can all of these things happen out of the blue? Are we to believe that once Effie is ousted, Deena has no diva moments between her, Lorrell and Michelle (Sharon Leal), Effie’s replacement? Additionally, Condon’s attempt to integrate social change feels sloppy, especially his inclusion of the 1968 Detroit riots. It is not necessary to bring in random real life events. Dreamgirls is not a survey, it should be about the music.
And a lot of the music is problematic as well. The songs do not reflect a wide variety of the styles it is supposed to represent. While heavy on the rhythm and blues, most of the songs lack soul, concentrating as they do on imitating a certain sound. Dreamgirls includes several new songs, poised for extra Oscar nods, with one success (the Hudson-sung “Love You I Do”) and one that belongs better on today’s charts: the Knowles-sung “Listen,” which poses a real problem for the movie. Throughout, Knowles is little more than a malleable presence, reciting her lines and hitting her marks with accuracy, but never making them seem organic, as though Deena were really under the spell of her Svengali. When she has her big song, Knowles actively breaks character and sings as herself rather than Deena, as though she were merely recording her latest music video.
Hudson isn’t perfect either; some of her line readings are unschooled, but when she sings, she more than acquits herself. “Telling” is a masterpiece of a song, and the achievement for anyone who plays Effie is in merely getting the role on the first place. She nails the number. Many know of Hudson’s back-story: She was a fan favorite on the third season of American Idol, only to get the boot. In this way, Idol has now graduated beyond a mere reality television theater of cruelty. It no longer creates stars to watch them fall, but to see them resurrected, and now creates mythology as well as music.
I wish the film, and its publicists, had devoted more attention to Rose, a Tony-winner who has sung at the Vatican the best of the three Dreams portrayers. Hinton Battle, Danny Glover, and Keith Robinson are also great in smaller roles, while Foxx merely relies on his natural bragadoccio and lolls through the film as the increasingly Machiavellian Curtis. (Fun fact #2: Loretta Devine, Broadway’s original Lorrell, has a cameo.) In the end, Murphy owns the movie with his bravura turn as Early. Murphy, a comic genius, has shown his diversity before, not ably in The Nutty Professor, and again he runs the gamut of emotions, singing, dancing, sweating, seducing, and snorting up a storm. There is a word for the work he does here: awesome.
One of the great ironies of Dreamgirls is that each of the Dreams prefers to hold onto their man rather than “be free.” In different ways, independence finds each of them. And there is no greater dream than that.