“Dreamgirls,” based on the 1981 hit Broadway play, has been hyped all year as a frontrunner for Best Picture, and now that it has finally arrived, it turns out to be as phony as Pat Boone covering a Little Richard tune. It is big and showy and loud, but director Bill Condon’s attempts to make the movie more socially relevant than the theatrical production instead just highlight what little soul was there in the first place.
Three women from Detroit in the early 1960s lose a local talent show but gain a slimy used car salesman as a manager. Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) puts them on the road as backup singers for funky soulster James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy), but not before a small bout of protest from heavy-set group leader Effie White (Jennifer Hudson). “I don’t do backup,” she says. I don’t think the term ‘diva’ was used back in the 60s, but it’s just one of the words used in this movie to describe Effie’s selfish behavior.
We are supposed to sympathize with Effie later when Curtis makes pretty face Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles) the lead singer of the group, but Effie has done nothing so far but step on her band mates, so that isn’t easy. When Deena takes over, she steals not just Effie’s job, but also her man. And Curtis, out to right the wrongs against blacks in the entertainment industry, resorts to payola to get his records played.
What follows is a ridiculous romp through every musical cliché in the book. Since the original play was based on the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes, it makes sense that Deena Jones and the Dreams start out as their doppelgangers. While they cycle through every musical fad of the 60s and 70s, the silly story recycles every rags-to-riches cliché that’s ever been put on film. Because the songs are sandwiched so close together, there is little chance to develop any of the characters, and Condon’s montages and flashbacks during the songs just aren’t enough.
Condon unsuccessfully inserts actual footage from Detroit, which seems like light years away from any place we’ve seen in the movie thus far. One scene, set against the backdrop of the 12th Street Riot of 1967 is particularly clumsy. Following an argument in the studio after trying to assert herself as a singer, Effie runs out into the street, oblivious to the burning cars and sirens. Curtis—by this point her worst enemy—shields her sensitive eyes from the ugly sight and brings her back inside. It sends the wrong message about these unlikable characters, and is awkwardly forced into a flimsy story that can’t support it.
“Dreamgirls” also covers issues surrounding ‘negro music’ going mainstream. This is material that “Ray” already covered in less obvious fashion two years ago. When Ray Charles stooped to a level that reached a wider (whiter) audience, he also raised the bar musically. This isn’t the case here, as catering to a white audience is only something Curtis does to sell more records and therefore make more money. Artistry and songwriting are not really factors, and the immense egos involved in “Dreamgirls” undo any good that the characters may be doing to advance their cause.
Eddie Murphy is better than he’s been since “The Nutty Professor” (although that’s not saying much), and Jennifer Hudson (an “American Idol” finalist) has some feisty moments, but overall the acting is pretty much on par with the lackluster script. Poor Danny Glover is reduced to being the go-to guy for reaction shots during all the singing scenes. Want to know how you’re supposed to be feeling? Just look at Glover, and he’ll tell you when you’re supposed to think somebody is singing good or bad. There’s no need to think for yourself.
And what about the musical numbers? Well, they start out with a lot of energy, but as the story takes more depressing and predictable turns, they drag on and on. Relying solely on the power of each song and performance to hold one’s interest is a mistake. Later in the film the emphasis is on more solo-oriented material, but the songs just aren’t compelling, and because they are ‘grown up,’ they aren’t staged interestingly either. “Dreamgirls” eventually falls into the musical movie’s worst nightmare, where the audience is dreading every time another song starts up.
There are stand-ins for virtually every major black artist in “Dreamgirls.” Jimmy Early is James Brown meets Little Richard, but morphs into Sammy Davis, Jr. and finally Marvin Gaye. There is a B.B. King guitarist and a Jackson 5 look-alike, but but Hudson’s perfromance resembles one person only—Aretha Franklin. Her character may be based on former Supremes member Florence Ballard, but Hudson’s look and singing style is all Aretha. The main difference being that the Queen of Soul had intensity but didn’t need to use it all the time. She started on 1, worked her way up to 5, and then finally headed for 10 towards the climax of the song. Hudson starts on 8, is wailing her way towards 10 in the first chorus, and has nowhere to go—except maybe to 11, which she must have learned from Spinal Tap. During one particularly mind-numbing number where she refuses to leave the jerk who is cheating on her, she stays at 11 for what seemed like six minutes. I understand that some people think that a bombastic assault on one’s ears translates into a showstopper, but all I hear is someone murdering a sub-par soul tune with lyrics that are clearly antithetical to her character.
“Dreamgirls” is a nauseating exercise in bigheadedness that hammers your brain for over two hours, and accomplishes little else. Ostensibly, it is a movie told through songs and montage, but it is so unconvincing that it is insulting. It begs for sympathy when it hasn’t earned it, and substitutes whopping cliché for character development. Sandwiching quick snippets of dialogue between annoying songs, it has enough cloying unearned sentimentality for a thousand Hallmark cards.