The Motown-inspired musical Dreamgirls is a frustrating muddle of hits and misses. As a musical, adapted from a 1981 Broadway hit, it's clumsily and unimaginatively staged and only a few of its songs are memorable. As a thinly veiled account of the rise and fall of the sixties girl group, the Supremes, it's a disappointing gloss. Nevertheless, Dreamgirls showcases top class acting, great singing and sparkling production values. As Saturday night entertainment, it passes muster and from time to time it splutters to life and briefly becomes something more.
The story spans the 1960s and early '70s, the era in which the sound of Motown reigned on the American pop charts. It begins in 1962 when a girl group comprising three young, black women from Chicago is performing at a nightclub's talent night. They call themselves the Dreamettes. Singing lead vocals is Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), the de facto head of the group. Supporting her are Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose).
The Dreamettes are spotted by Curtis Taylor, Jr (Jamie Foxx) a Cadillac salesman who wants to make it big in the music business. His sales pitch impresses the girls enough that they take him on as their manager and he quickly gets them a gig singing back-up for soul legend Jimmy Early (Eddie Murphy). Jimmy is impressed and the girls become a permanent part of his act. There are fireworks offstage as well as on. Jimmy, who's married, courts Lorrell, while Curtis romances the forthright Effie.
Curtis has plans for the Dreamettes that go beyond supporting Jimmy and, with the help of Effie's songwriter brother C.C. (Keith Robinson), he invents a new sound for them. However, Curtis believes success requires changes and his biggest change is replacing Effie as lead vocalist with the more photogenic Deena.
Viewers familiar with Motown and the Supremes will know Deena is based on Diana Ross, Effie on the group's original lead singer, Florence Ballard and Curtis on Motown Records entrepreneur Berry Gordy, Jr. Viewers who aren't familiar with these people should be careful not to base their opinions of them on this movie since it's superficial and quite inaccurate.
Berry Gordy, Jr gets a very rough ride. He's portrayed as cruel and dishonest and even his achievements are disparaged. Gordy's efforts played no small part in getting black musicians accepted by white America and into the mainstream but Dreamgirls chooses to focus on the compromises he had to make rather than the goal. It seems to imply that black artists were somehow demeaning themselves by playing for white people (who are shown as crude and racist).
Strangely, Deena is virtually a supporting character in the story (maybe this is why Diana Ross hated the musical). More emphasis is placed on Effie, even though Florence Ballard was a relatively minor figure in the real-life history of the Supremes. When Deena does come to the fore in the later scenes, it's in a tired rehash of the singer / domineering producer relationship already seen in many films about the music business. Beyoncé Knowles, a pleasant but limited actress, is out of her depth and outshone by her fellow cast members.
The three standouts are Jamie Foxx, proving once again he's among the best actors working today, Jennifer Hudson and, best of all, Eddie Murphy. The flamboyant Jimmy Early is meant to be an amalgam of various soul singers of the era, James Brown and Little Richard the most obvious. This makes it an ideal role for Murphy, who used to brilliantly take off Brown and Richard (among others) on Saturday Night Live, and the comedian clearly relishes the opportunity to get up on stage and strut. His "Jimmy's Rap" number is the best in the film. This isn't merely a star turn though. Jimmy has a tragic side to him and Murphy is just as good when the script turns serious. He has one particular scene, played without words, which would do credit to any actor. Make no mistake, Murphy earned his Golden Globe and his Oscar nomination.
Also leaping off the screen is Jennifer Hudson, whose acting and singing are so impressive that I was astonished to learn that she'd never acted before and that she came to fame as a contestant on the TV talent show American Idol. Hudson also richly deserves her Golden Globe and her Oscar nomination and if there's any justice in the world, she's headed for major stardom. If only her big solo number, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" had been less awkwardly directed.
That's a problem with most of the film's numbers. Many are forgettable and some are slapdash. Director Bill Condon has been rightly acclaimed for his dramas - Gods And Monsters and Kinsey - and his gift for working with actors pays off in the dramatic scenes of Dreamgirls. When it comes to staging a production number however, a very different skill, he doesn't have what it takes. He seems to be imitating Rob Marshall's work on Chicago (the editing and the art direction are very familiar) but he doesn't have the same knack for the razzle-dazzle.