By Joe Lozito
"Dream" Comes True
Bill Condon is no stranger to musicals (he adapted "Chicago"
) or sex (he directed "Kinsey"
) and he puts that experience to work in his slick, vibrant, star-studded adaptation of "Dreamgirls". Those of you familiar with the original Broadway musical already know that "Dreamgirls" is the story of Deena (not Diana) Jones (not Ross) who rockets to stardom with her backup singers, The Dreams (not the Supremes) under the guidance of a car salesman-turned-manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (not Berry Gordy Jr.). Come to think of it, even if you don't know the musical you might know the story. Mr. Condon and his crew aren't shy about tapping into the musical's influences, creating a bouncing, joyous film that positively pulsates with rhythm (as well as the occasional blues).
The film could have been called "Dream Cast" since the sheer star wattage on display is almost blinding. The painfully beautiful Beyoncé Knowles makes a fine, if somewhat bland Deena, and Jamie Foxx is perfectly slimy as Curtis. But it's "American Idol" cast-off Jennifer Hudson who steals the film as Effie, the plus-sized lead signer of the pre-stardom Dreamettes. But no one puts Effie in a corner. And when Ms. Hudson belts out the literally show-stopping "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going", she nearly tears the screen apart. I haven't seen people cheer and applaud in a theater like that since Anakin became Darth Vader (and I understand that my analogy is pretty terrible, but there you have it).
Anika Noni Rose is no slouch herself as Lorrell, the third of the original Dreams and the one who falls into a damaging affair with soul singer James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy). Mr. Murphy's wonderfully mature, unselfconscious performance is made all the more bittersweet by the passing of the legendary James Brown, on whom Early is clearly modeled.
There's not much new to Mr. Condon's handling of the material, but in his recycling, he has pulled from the best. There're those scenes when a young starlet gets an approving nod from a previously unconvinced auditioner. There's the montage as The Dreams rise to stardom. And of course there are the musical numbers, filmed in high, MTV jumpcutting style. There are those moments in every musical when a song starts and the phrase "oh no, not another song" goes through your head. Mr. Condon brilliantly combats that impulse by using all but the most important musical numbers to underscore his dialogue scenes. This technique links the storytelling and the music in a way that's nigh on impossible on Broadway. Rather than bringing the film to a halt, Mr. Condon's musical numbers propel the film forward.
After an unbelievably energetic first hour, during which the film's pace never flags for a moment, "Dreamgirls" sags just a bit. Too often characters proclaim to each other that "It's over", when it is clearly not: the film still has many storylines to tie up and not enough time to do it. As a result, none of the characters gets the screentime we'd like to see. But this is also a compliment. There's a joy on screen - a love for the material that's palpable and contagious - but the material, in the end, lets them down. The songs are, ultimately, less than memorable and the story is one we've heard many times before. But between the performances (Mr. Murphy and Ms. Hudson, in particular) and the production design (the costumer and set designers had a lot of fun with the period), "'Girls" is a dream.