Dreamgirls (2006): Bill Condon’s Triumphant Musical of Broadway Hit

Dreamgirls, Bill Condon’s screen version of Michael Bennetts smash Broadway hit of 1981, has all the markings of a great musical and yet something is missing to make it a truly memorable picture.

Its an extremely enjoyable film, boasting many artistic merits, but it is not the unqualified success we expected it to be. Even so, in an era in which few musical movies are being made, we need to look first at whats good about Dreamgirls, and a lot is.

For starters, the film has a dazzling cast, which includes some of the best African American actors working in Hollywood today. Bound to become a movie star after this picture, Emmy award-winning Beyonce Knowles in the Diana Ross-like role is stunningly beautiful (my friend said her gorgeous looks are distracting) and she can sing, dance, and act. This should be a consolation for those who doubted her acting skills after Austin Powers in Goldmember and “The Pink Panther.”

The two central male performers, Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy, are also well cast. Its never easy to play the villain, particularly in a musical, but Foxx acquits himself honorably.
Its been a while since Eddie Murphy has given such an energized performance; he throws himself completely, body, soul, and heart, into playing the flamboyant singer James Thunder Early.

Midway, theres scene, in which the above two are joined by two other gifted black actors, Danny Glover and Keith Robinson, representing a wide spectrum of talent.

The new star, Jennifer Hudson, while not Jennifer Holliday, has a huge voice and strong presence; with more experience, she might develop into a major actress. It could be that I am still so enamored of (and nostalgic about) Hollidays show-stopping number, And I Am Telling You, that I am being too harsh in drawing comparisons. One reason this number doesnt work so well on screen is the way its shot, cut, and presented (more about it later).

For the most part, the score by Henry Krieger and the late Tom Eyen is used effectively, and if I am not mistaken there are four new musical numbers, two of which quite good. (see list of new songs below).

I just hope that those who criticize Dreamgirls will not use in their argument Condons race, namely, that he is yet another white artist who looks at a distinctly black phenomenon from the outside; at the time, the shows composers Krieger and Eyen were subjected to such scrutiny, faulted for writing music that’s too Broadway, or not Motown enough.

Some of the problems of Dreamgirls are similar to those of Chicago, which Condon also scripted (but didn’t direct). The conceptual and musical flaws are most evident in the rough, often awkward transitions between the storylines and singing of the characters on stage and off. That said, unlike “Chicago,” which was shallow and glitzy, “Dreamgirls” is more substantial, and it pays greater attention to larger context than the 2002 picture.

The story begins in early 1960s Detroit, where a good night onstage can get you noticed but it wont get your song played on the radio. A new kind of music is on the cusp of being born, a sound with roots buried deep in the soul of Detroit, where songs have meaning and everyone seems bound together by a shared dream.

Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Foxx) is a car salesman aching to make his mark in the music business to form his own record label and get its sound heard on mainstream radio at a time when civil rights are still only a whisper in the streets. Curtis holds that he just needs the angle, the right talent, the right product to sell.

Late for their stint in a local talent show, The Dreamettes, Deena Jones (Beyonc Knowles), Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose), and lead singer Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) show up in their cheap wigs and homemade dresses, rehearsing songs and steps by Effies brother, C.C. (Keith Robinson), with hopes that talent and ambition will break them out of the only life that seems available to them. Young, talented, and beautiful, theyre just what Curtis is looking for.

“All” they have to do is trust him. James Thunder Early (Eddie Murphy) is a pioneer of the new Detroit sound, spellbinding audiences along the Chitlin Circuit with his electrifying blend of soul and rock n roll. Curtis finesses The Dreamettes a gig singing backup for Early, and suddenly, the gulf between what they want and what they can have draws closer for the first time.

Curtis launches the girls as a solo act, rechristening them The Dreams, knowing in his gut that success lies not with the soulful voice of Effie, but with the demure beauty and malleable style of Deena–despite their history and Curtis promises. Deena is ready to step into the spotlight, even as Effie fades away.

As a new musical age dawns, Curtis driving ambition pushes this one-time family to the forefront of an industry in the throes of music revolution. But when the lights come up, they hardly recognize who theyve become. Their dreams are finally there for the taking, but at a price that’s too heavy to bear.

I describe the plot in detail to indicate that the film has a classic and quintessential American story, about the rise and fall and rise of a group, and about artistic compromise and greed, issues that are still relevant today, within and without the music industry.

Narratively, Condon uses the same ensemble paradigm that Paul Thomas Anderson used in Boogie Nights. Though Beyonces Deena is clearly the lead, Condon doesnt favor her story, and we get to see the evolution (or devolution) of ten or so characters over a period of a decade, from the early 1960s to the early 1970s. Condon, who won an Oscar Screenplay for Gods and Monsters, and later directed the biopic Kinsey,” is attracted to characters that are outsiders and he seems to know the stage musical well.

Its irrelevant, I think, to ask how faithful the Dreamgirls plot is to the real-life story of Diana Ross and the Supremes, which inspired both the stage and film version; in any case, most moviegoers today were not even born when Ross and her group were at their peak. Those who are old enough may remember that Motowns mogul Berry Gordy replaced lead singer Florence Ballard with Diana Ross, Ballard’s friend from the Detroit slums whom Gordy saw as prettier, skinnier and likelier to cross over to mainstream audiences.

C.C. White (Keith Robinson), Effie’s younger brother, writes the song, “Cadillac Car,” that gets them noticed and pushes them to the top. That motivates Curtis to get rid of all thats black out of Jimmy and the Dreams so that they can play white clubs and hit the charts.

Both ambitious and greedy, Curtis is responsible for replacing Effie as lead singer of The Dreamettes with her childhood pal and backup singer Deena. After dating Effie and presumably in love with her, Curtis summarily dumps her, using the argument of looks, weight and appeal, along with her laziness and being late.

In short time, Deena becomes Curtis’ wife and client, though he relates to her more in the latter category. The change brings fame, money, and success to Deena, Lorrell, and Effie’s replacement, Michelle (Sharon Leal), but for Jimmy and Effie it signals decline and threatens demise.

In his effort to open up the play, Condon inevitably places greater emphasis on the restless socio-political context at large, noting the Martin Luther King and the civil-rights movement and later Vietnam and the anti-war movement. This is done through news clips, archival footage, TV, and several outdoor scenes that show racial riots.

But the focus remains the black versus black, and black versus white conflicts, within the group and within the music industry at large. Dreamgirls deals with the general (and still relevant) issues of cultural change, assimilation, and integration into mainstream society, drawing a contrast between being true to your origins or compromising for the sake of broader popularity, two legit career avenues, each executed at a price. It’s the classic dilemma of American showbiz, depicted in numerous books, plays, and Hollywood movies.

Curtis serves as the arch to the story since hes the only character that is emotionally and professionally involved (in every sense of the term) with each of the persona. As noted, once Curtis switches affection and allegiance to Deena, controlling every aspect of her career, she becomes dissatisfied and disillusioned.

The films second half cuts back and forth between Curtis, Deena, and the Dreams on the one hand and Effies tragic saga on the other. We see Effie, who unbeknownst to Curtis gives birth to and raises a girl who doesnt even know she has a father. This subplot turns the movie into a melodrama, which gets too sappy toward the end, when some inevitable revelations are made.

The last reel, which centers on Curtis-Deenas declining relationship, a result of their differing opinions as to what track her singing and acting career should take, is rather weak, and I think that its a mistake on Condons part to change the original ending of the stage musical for the movie to have a reconciliatory, upbeat conclusion.

As noted earlier, the film suffers from the sagas transitions between the interior and exterior scenes; it’s much more successful when it’s confined to the indoors. Its always a challenge for a musical movie to navigate smoothly between the actors singing onstage and offstage. Fortunately, as the story dictates, most of the musical numbers are done on stage in natural spaces and situations, such as rehearsals, nightclubs, and recording studios.

Nonetheless, like Chicago, which Condon scripted but didnt direct, Dreamgirls unfolds with too many montages and too many cuts (within single songs) that are distracting and disruptive. Its hard to tell if this approach derives from Condons aesthetics or his accommodation to the prevalent style embodied by MTV.

Hudson appeared on the third season of American Idol (a runner-up, reduced by judge Simon Cowell) and acted in some regional theater and on a Disney cruise ship. Making an impressive feature debut, she seems to understand the responsibility of playing a legendary part made even more legendary by Holliday. The whole show builds up to her rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” which is more of a cri de coeur ballad than a song in which Effie battles to stop Curtis from throwing her out of the group and out of his life.

The real revelation is Eddie Murphy as James “Thunder” Early, an R&B James Brown-like performer, whos a womanizer and excessive with liquor and drugs. If memory serves, it’s the first time that Murphy takes a supporting role, and a risky one at that. Nonetheless, it’s a meaty role that allows him to show his comic energy in the early chapters and real fear in the later ones. Murphy is particularly good in a meltdown scene onstage, when Jimmy stops himself midway to drop his pants and deliver an R&B song. It’s one of the film’s show-stopping scenes, which should help Murphy receive an Oscar nomination (his first ever!)

Murphy plays Jimmy as a star whos well aware of abusing too many women (his wife and Lorrell, his longtime mistress) and too many drugs yet cant stop or modify his behavior. This subplot becomes too explicit, when Jimmy’s wife and mistress attend the same concert, each wishing that his song delivery be targeted at her personally.

With no exception, all the actors are good. Changing pace from his Oscar-winning role in Ray, Foxx is magnetic as the bad guy, showing a grasp of the insecurities that drive the controlling Curtis. The always-reliable Danny Glover brings gravitas and nobility to his part, Marty Madison, an honest old-school manager who loses star client Jimmy and embraces the dejected Effie.

As noted, Beyonce is extremely beautiful and sexy; the camera seems to caress her, gliding up and down her body. It’s a tribute to Beyonce’s acting (not just singing) that she succeeds in elevating Deenas stature in what is an underwritten role.

Beyonce also helped co-write a new song, “Listen,” that expresses her feelings of frustration that would ultimately lead to breaking free of Curtis stifling clutches. I didn’t find this song particularly touching, and I also think that it slows down the picture.

Technically, with the exception of the decent but not exquisite choreography, the movie is sumptuously produced. Sharen Davis’ dresses for the women are suitably sparkling, and in some scenes, as in the farewell concert, even dazzling. (Reportedly, the gowns were so elaborate and heavy that they limited the actresses’ movements).

Cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler (Friday Night Lights) uses bright, vibrant colors to highlight the song-and-dance sequences and melodramatics too.

In an act of love and gallantry, Condon dedicates the movie to Michael Bennett, who died of AIDS in 1987.

Oscar Alert

If my reading of the Oscar scene is right, “Dreamgirls” should receive around 7 to 10 nominations in the following categories: Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Jamie Foxx), Actress (Beyonce Knowles), Supporting Actress (Jennifer Hudson), Supporting Actor (Eddie Murphy), Production Design, Costume Design, and Music (more than one song could land a nod).

Four New Songs

Krieger collaborated on four new songs for the Dreamgirls soundtrack:

Love You I Do–Effies breezy love song to Curtis (performed by Jennifer Hudson);

Listen–a passionate song sung by Deena, who transforms from Curtiss product into an independent woman as she sings it (performed by Beyonce Knowles);

Patience–a song C.C. writes for James Thunder Early to signal his budding awareness of social change, (performed by Eddie Murphy, Keith Robinson, and Anika Noni Rose);

Perfect World–an upbeat confection from Teddy Campbell, a child musical sensation rising alongside The Dreams.