January 4, 2007

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Dreamgirls (PG-13)
Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx all take a back seat to one-time American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson in the dazzling musical Dreamgirls.

Hudson is Effie Melody White, the lead singer in a 1960s girl band called the Dreamettes. Though a chubby girl, Effie has the vocal chops that set her above her fellow trio members, the flighty Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) and the lovely Deena Jones (Knowles). Curtis Taylor (Foxx), a car salesman and would-be music mogul, sees the girls and sees their talent. He gives them a break, setting them up as the back-up band to a troublesome, horndog singer named James Early (Murphy). Against the advice of Early’s longtime manager Marty (Danny Glover), Curtis tries to tame Early’s act and make it palatable to a pop (read: white) audience. When Curtis sees this attempt will be a constant struggle, he decides to turn some of his attentions to popifying the Dreamettes, turning them into the Dreams and replacing the big-voiced Effie with the more sedate Deena. The group is a hit but by popularizing their sound, Curtis strips it of its soul and its look—the curvy, dark Effie is replaced in the lead and eventually altogether by the slender, paler Deena.

While Effie suffers in poverty, Deena goes on to become hugely famous but also sad—her attempts to establish herself as a serious actress in a gritty role are undercut by Curtis’ efforts to put her in big-budget glam roles. One by one, the people Curtis has “improved” to take mainstream, including Effie’s brother, the songwriter C.C. White (Keith Robinson), find they can no longer make the compromises success requires.

Race, money, fame, the 1960s music industry—the musical takes big bites of huge subjects and chokes on just about all of them. For all that we laugh when an Early song is remade as a Pat-Boone-like ballad by a soft-pop white boy, the songs of Dreamgirls are fairly adult contemporary as well. It’s the power of the performances, specifically Hudson’s performance and specifically in “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” that elevates them from a kind of Broadway blandness. And while Dreamgirls does have important things to say—about image, about what happens to unique talent when it meets a machine like the music industry or the movie industry—it takes care of the “message” with some rather unsubtle speeches and the sort of speech-delivery-singing that tends to make Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals so insufferable.

Dreamgirls is fun and pretty in the same way a wardrobe full of vintage-inspired dresses is fun and pretty—here’s the sequin-filled stage costume, here’s the Diana Ross chic. But these dresses are only vintage-inspired. I never once felt like I was seeing the real thing—hearing the real music or understanding the change in music that takes place when the R&B played for black audiences becomes the Motown pop played on TV for a vast audience. Especially because the story is based on race and how fame not only does its thing (the kind of sublimation of your real self as happens to famous people of every ethnicity) but very clearly requires a kind of whitewash, the potential for dramatic subtlety is enormous. We see hints of it in how Effie, trying to find her way back to happiness, returns to a full-voiced soul rather than trying to emulate the flatter sound of Deena. But the movie—really, the music of the musical—never really lets this part of the story fully unfold. We are told, rather than shown, all of this.

Despite this central failing, Dreamgirls remains a ticket worth buying (and a movie worth betting on in awards) because of the strength of its performances, particularly Hudson and Murphy, both of whom play people used up and unable to get with Curtis’ plans for them. Their scenes sparkle with real energy and even lackluster songs and dialogue sound good coming out of their mouths. B

Rated PG-13 for language, some sexuality and drug content. Directed by Bill Condon and written by Condon from a book by Tom Eyen, Dreamgirls is two hours and five minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Paramount Pictures and Dreamworks SKG.