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Dreamgirls   B

DreamWorks Pictures / Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Bill Condon
Writer: Bill Condon (based on the original Broadway production book and lyrics by Tom Eyen)
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover, Anika Noni Rose, Keith Robinson, Jennifer Hudson.

Review by Rob Vaux

It's possible to be a very good movie and still be overrated. So it is with Dreamgirls -- easily the best of the post-Moulin Rouge batch of cinematic musicals, with energy and enthusiasm to spare. So why, then, are people ruining that with foolish talk about it being a Best Picture front-runner? It's not up for that kind of responsibility, and shoving it beneath the Oscar spotlight undermines a lot of the good clean entertainment value it might otherwise provide. Let it be what it is, people. Don't go irritating us by pretending it's something more.

That caveat has one (and only one) notable exception: Jennifer Hudson, who, as temperamental diva Effie Melody White, headlines the rising pop trio at the film's center. With a voice like Aretha Franklin's and a bewitching combination of imperiousness and vulnerability, she grandly encapsulates the film's message of triumph at great cost. Hudson had a stint on American Idol -- during which she was ultimately bounced in favor of the much more talented... um, whatshername -- and the bittersweet implications of such an experience make her a natural for the part.

Effie is the lead for an all-girl ensemble -- the Dreamettes -- patterned loosely on Diana Ross and the Supremes. Her chops make her the standout, but her Rubenesque figure and tendency for soap-opera theatrics cause trouble from the beginning. They're a band on the rise in 1960s Detroit, falling under the wing of unscrupulous manager Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx), who nonetheless has a plan to send them straight to the top. First, he secures them a spot as backup singers for soul sensation Jimmy "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy). Then, as Thunder declines, he makes them their own act -- just after moving Effie to a backup spot in favor of the ostensibly prettier but less talented Deena (Beyoncé Knowles). Casual betrayal and sacrifice for greater fame are endemic of Taylor's modus operandi, building a pop empire as the Dreamettes (rechristened the Dreams) rise higher and higher, and leave more and more of their ideals by the wayside.

The turgid melodrama underlying this arc is the film's weakest element, relying on stock complications seen in a thousand showbiz stories before. But director Bill Condon compensates with a flashy visual style that captures the characters' exuberance in breathless kinetic bursts. The period sets and costumes are ever so slightly stylized, presenting a believable evocation of the '60s and '70s frosted with a whiff of fantasy haze. The songs (by Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger from their Broadway musical) are fizzy and toe-tapping, punctuated by a humming structure from editor Virginia Katz and an overall sparkliness undercut with quiet but firm tones of corruption. Condon tends to limit the musical numbers to quasi-naturalistic moments (i.e., characters performing onstage rather than just randomly bursting into song), but the few times he diverges from that rule are a trifle jarring... one of the only things that detracts from the otherwise impressive spectacle.

Within that framework, Dreamgirls makes a few modest efforts at social commentary. The radical upheaval of the '60s is filtered through the unspoken segregation of the music scene, as heartfelt songs from black artists are handed over to bland Pat Boone types to make a run up the charts, and musicians' inner-city voices are homogenized for rendition at better-paying white clubs. At first, it's about affirming black sound, then making compromises to ensure that it reaches the widest possible audience, then slowly sacrificing it all in order to ensure a bigger payoff. The implication of selling out just at the moment when African Americans were making such advances helps give the film some heft (was Deena chosen as front girl because she "looked whiter" than Effie?), as well as touching on less charged topics such as payola, plagiarism, drug abuse, and the usual cocktail of narcissism and entitlement. Condon handles them all adroitly, though he never probes as deep as he could. As a result Dreamgirls lacks the depth its supporters want so desperately to believe it possesses, but at the same time, it brings a subtle and much-appreciated edge to the songs and lighter elements.

The cast follows the same pattern of solid-but-not-overwhelming work. Knowles is well suited to her part, of course, while Foxx lets his effortless cool curdle around the edges in the portrayal of a genuine snake. It's nice seeing Danny Glover reclaim his dignity playing Early's ousted manager Marty, and Keith Robinson brings a refreshing intensity to Effie's brother/Dreamettes songwriter C.C. The most intriguing performance is Murphy's, who hangs Early around the core of his old James Brown send-up from Saturday Night Live. But it's more than just a parody. Murphy sidles right up to the edge of self-mockery, then pulls back with some surprising flashes of steel. The toughest moment of the film shows a has-been Early despairingly pulling out a bag of heroin at a backstage get-together... then silently daring the assemblage to stop him from taking it. Hudson reaches higher with her fits-like-a-glove debut, but Murphy brings more interesting depths beneath his prancing and preening.

Indeed, if it weren't for the constant talk about top Oscar honors, Dreamgirls would be even more enjoyable than it is. Musicals remain a sadly neglected genre, and the feeble efforts to capitalize on it of late make rousing bursts of entertainment like this one all the more welcome. Its technical merits are unimpeachable, and in a weak year for supporting actresses, Hudson is clearly among the best. But why weigh all of that down with talk of immortality? Why elevate it to heights it couldn't otherwise scale, or lionize it over demonstrably better films on demonstrably more daring topics? Such early buzz invariably gives way to backlash (though before or after the Academy Awards remains to be seen), and it would be a shame to shoulder this otherwise blameless confection with accolades stolen from more deserving efforts. Nothing should prevent the average moviegoer from enjoying Condon's groovy little party here. But for Academy members? Don't disrupt Dreamgirls' beautiful frosting by searching for the cake beneath. There's not as much there as you'd think.

Review published 12.15.2006.

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