DreamWorks // 2006 // 130 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // April 23rd, 2007
All you have to do is dream.
After the success of pictures like Moulin Rouge, and especially Chicago, which won Best Picture and five more Academy Awards in 2003, the musical was officially declared resurrected, and the movie-going public was bound to face an onslaught of singing and dancing numbers. And so it's no surprise that Dreamgirls showed up on the scene, with a strong cast and under the direction of Chicago scribe Bill Condon. Has Condon got the secret formula for modern musical success, or is Dreamgirls less than dreamy?
Based on the immensely popular 1981 Broadway musical, Dreamgirls follows The Dreamettes, a soul group who gets their big break singing backup for popular black musician James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy, Beverly Hills Cop), thanks to a used car salesman moonlighting as a manager, named Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx, Miami Vice). Soon The Dreamettes are The Dreams, cutting their own tracks and rising in popularity.
But when the always business-minded Curtis decides to replace lead singer Effie (American Idol-finalist Jennifer Hudson) with the more marketable (on the white-dominated pop charts) Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles, Austin Powers in Goldmember), relegating Effie to singing backup, he changes the trajectory of the entire group. Careers are made and friendships are destroyed, all set to the changing sounds of soul, R&B, and disco from the 1960s and 70s.
Set in Detroit during its musical glory days (and based in part on a number of real-life acts from the time period, most obviously The Supremes, Diana Ross, The Jackson Five, and James Brown), Dreamgirls is a thoroughly engaging powerhouse of a movie, chock full of electrifying musical numbers that serve not only to entertain, but to propel the story forward at its fast clip. I really cared about what would happen to every character in the film, not just the leads or the "hero" -- fortunately, there's an arc and a payoff for nearly every player, each one a small piece of an intricate tale.
A meaty examination of the music industry's racial politics exists below the surface of Dreamgirls. Curtis wants to create success at any cost, and if that means playing the game as it stands so be it; Effie and Early, on the other hand, refuse to adapt to popular, white conventions, and they pay the price because of it. Further, Early's first hit on the pop charts, "Cadillac Car" is quickly stolen and bastardized by a nondescript white group, and this is presented as a common occurrence. There's not much explicit examination of these issues in the piece, as Dreamgirls exists primarily as crowd-pleasing entertainment, but this subtext feels just as pertinent today as it must have in 1981, a bit of an unfortunate commentary on how far we haven't come.
Curtis and Effie are the picture's dual focal points, and their arcs complement each other in such a way that we're always watching one decline while the other is raised up. While Curtis could be considered the antagonist of the piece, he's hardly sinister. Instead, he's simply an ambitious man with instinctive business savvy and charm to spare, making him a rather admirable character for at least the first third of the film. His willingness to separate business from personal considerations takes James "Thunder" Early into a whole new league of success, makes C. C. White (Keith Robinson, Fat Albert) into an influential songwriter, and nurtures The Dreams, and later Deena as a solo act, as they grow from amateur to professional. When he suggests that Deena take Effie's place at the front of the group, yes it's cold, but it's also done with the group's interests at heart. It's his business side making the call, and when he says he'll take care of Effie down the road, I believe him. Foxx has fashioned a character that is sympathetic and genuine, simultaneously putting up the front of a smooth operator. His is the least flashy piece of work, and it elevates the movie.
Securing Jennifer Hudson as Effie was truly a fortuitous piece of casting, both for Hudson herself (the 26-year-old won both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for this, her first ever film performance) and for us. She easily has the most powerful, soulful singing voice presented in the picture, which is partly due to Condon's direction to professional singer Beyonce to keep toning down her vocal presence, but mostly can be credited to Hudson's own hefty set of pipes. Most impressive about her performance is the degree of emotion and character development she is able to put into the musical numbers. During her jaw-dropping rendition of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," we see a dramatic progression of her character from defiant and strong-willed to a pleading, broken tantrum (it was reported that standing ovations broke out in theatres after this scene, and I believe it -- I almost did the same thing myself in my living room). She never betrays Effie's darker and more unlikable elements for the sake of a song, and manages to hold her ground exceptionally well against seasoned performers Foxx, Murphy, and Danny Glover (Beloved). This woman absolutely deserves every award and the praise heaped upon her, and I look forward to seeing what she does next.
The smaller roles filled by Murphy, Glover, and Anika Noni Rose, who plays Lorrell, the third Dream, each have their moment in the spotlight, and are more examples of fine casting and commitment to the story. Murphy, of course, is taking the biggest risk, singing and dancing in a dramatic role with no age makeup or fat-suit to be seen (DreamWorks's inclusion of the nails-on-a-chalkboard trailer for Norbit, automatically playing when the DVD is inserted, makes Murphy's performance all the more striking in comparison), and he's perfect as the consummate showman Early. Later scenes depicting the man as a broken, drug- and alcohol-abusing has-been are so subtly played that I anxiously wait for the day he shows up in a Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights) movie, or some equally challenging project.
The acting and singing is note-perfect, and the cinematography by Tobias Schliessler (Friday Night Lights), production design by John Myhre (Memoirs of a Geisha), and costuming by Sharen Davis (Ray) make for an immensely pleasing visual experience. But what makes this a top-notch movie, rather than a filmed version of a successful musical, is the deft writing and direction by Condon. What is most striking about Dreamgirls is the way in which the story never seems to stop moving forward for the sake of a musical number. The first act, especially, moves relentlessly, with most of the songs acting as the soundtrack for a musical montage showing character growth and development. It's not until well into the picture that a character breaks into song during a conversation, and the ease with which this is done is surprising. Much of the movie involves performances on stage, and this justifies flashy, intricately choreographed numbers in the same way that the daydream conceit of Chicago assisted that musical's adaptation to the big screen. But Condon never dwells on a musical performance for more than a few minutes, and was ruthless in what he cut for the sake of the picture -- proof of this can be found in the 40 minutes of extended musical sequences found on Disc One, most of which are wonderful to view on their own but would've been absolute pace killers. Condon has created a truly cinematic musical here, telling its story through actions and images as much as through the lyrics, and creating a world of heightened reality that is a pleasure to spend two hours watching.
A musical is dependant on quality sound for full effect, and this disc delivers beautifully. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track has a wide dynamic range and a great deal of stereo separation, with the drums coming across as cleanly and lively as in a concert hall and every soulful bass line rich and thick. Surround speakers mostly present reverb, crowd noise and other ambiance, filling out what is an exciting demo-quality soundtrack. I only wish a DTS track had been included as well for even more fidelity.
The anamorphic picture is also a standout, handling the extreme contrast of a spotlit singer against a dark audience admirably. I noticed no edge enhancement or compression artifacts at all. With the stage sequences being so brightly lit, the rest of the world appears shadowy and dark, and this disc presents a good level of shadow detail and solid color reproduction consistently across its running time.
Despite its unfortunate title, this "Two-Disc Showstopper Edition" (what's wrong with simply calling it a special edition?) is phenomenally packed with a well-produced and comprehensive set of special features. Disc One has the aforementioned extended scenes and a music video with Beyonce (sadly no commentary), while disc two includes a nearly two-hour making-of documentary covering most aspects of pre-production and production, along with a snappy featurette on the special challenges of editing a musical, a segment on costume design, audition footage, extensive previsualization sequences, and a great little featurette on designing the stage lighting. While not as much of a "warts and all" look at the movie's making as you might find on, say, a Ridley Scott film like Kingdom of Heaven, "Building the Dream" should more than satisfy fans of the film. I appreciated that the main documentary is both divided into several segments and includes a "play all" option, an all-too-rare feature these days. This is a superb special edition that will appeal to collectors and casual fans alike.
The one thing that always bothers me with movie musicals is the lip-syncing. Although logistically it would be nearly impossible to record the actors performing live and still have the amount of camera coverage needed for editing purposes, I'm sometimes taken out of a film by noticing that an actor is clearly not singing. While this is not often a problem in Dreamgirls, and Jennifer Hudson is particularly convincing, it is worth noting.
Dreamgirls was one of the event pictures of late 2006, a much-anticipated adaptation met with critical acclaim and audience delight. It's a fast paced, detailed examination of the period with entertainment as its primary goal, but with enough substance to reward multiple viewings. This special edition has lots of good stuff in addition to a great movie, and is highly recommended.
Review content copyright © 2007 Daniel MacDonald; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Building the Dream
* Dream Logic: Film Editing
* Dressing the Dreams: Costume Design
* Center Stage: Theatrical Lighting
* Auditions and Screen Tests
* Previsualization Sequences
* Image Gallery