2006: Bill Condon
PG-13 – 131 minutes
Vault Rating: 7
“Dreamgirls” is the most successful movie musical we’ve had since “Chicago” in 2002, which is damning with faint praise, I suppose.
“Chicago” was a better movie, but not by a great stretch. The matter of fact is that they just don’t make musicals much anymore. That the best of the genre can be found in two film treatments of Broadway musicals, I think, says a couple things; that there are no more Gene Kellies out there and that popular tastes have moved on.
After having waited so long to see a film so many have raved about, I suppose the film did not meet my expectation. Don’t get me wrong, I still recommend it with the caveat that some people are going to just plain hate it. One has to accept a musical on its own terms. And the action crowd who, for instance, can somehow accept Rocky Balboa as a member of the AARP still have difficulty with people singing to each other.
“Dreamgirls” is a fictionalization of the rise of the Motown Sound in Detroit in the early 1960s and its rise to national prominence, largely on the shoulders of people like Berry Gordy, the Supremes and other greats. The emotional center of the film recounts how Diana Ross was made a star at the expense of Florence Ballard, one of the original Supremes.
One of the spies here in the Vault, Bobby from Clearfield, who is a respected pop musicologist with ties to Detroit, told me in a secret meeting at breakfast last Friday that trying to match all the characters to the Motown scene he knew so well was a distraction. Therefore, Vault recommends you dispense with figuring out, for instance, who “Tiny Joe Dixon” is supposed to be. Just enjoy the show and know that it accurately represents how Motown developed, how it was linked at the soul to the civil rights movement, and… well… how Berry Gordy was a bit of a jerk.
You need only keep straight that Jamie Foxx represents Gordy as “Curtis Taylor Jr.” Beyonce Knowles represents Diana Ross as “Deena Jones” and Jennifer Hudson represents Ms. Ballard as “Effie White.”
It is unquestionably a star-making performance by the Oscar-winning Ms. Hudson, who up to now was best known for her run on the hit television show, “American Idol.” For the record, Hudson was Vault’s favorite that season and it feels good to tell the world, “I told ya so.”
An even more striking performance is given by the Oscar-nominated Eddie Murphy as the James Brown-esque “James Thunder Early.” Murphy shows his acting chops in a rare deep performance and has the zeal to believably play the flamboyant soul giant. It is a role to covet for any actor, but only a few, I think, could have pulled it off so well.
Musically speaking, the soundtrack is very well worth owning and a handful of the performances by “The Dreams” at the heart of this musical are flat-out astonishing. Anyone who saw their live performance at this year’s Oscars cannot doubt it.
A shortcoming for Vault is that there are a couple of soft spots where the film spins its wheels and feels slightly overlong. But this is a modest complaint in a sea of good performances.
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