336- Dreamgirls

After you cut through the electrifying songs and dazzling choreography in Bill Condon’s story of a Detroit girl band struggling to succeed in the sixties and seventies, you’re left with a fairly typical rise-and-fall story, but because of the powerful performances turned in by the phenomenal Jennifer Hudson (who won an Oscar) and the dynamic Eddie Murphy (who was nominated for one), the movie rises above typical showbiz biopics, even the fake ones.

The Dreamettes are Effie (Hudson), a bombastic diva with a strong voice; Deena (Beyonce Knowles), a willowy, softer touch; and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose), the youngest of the bunch. They’re not succeeding on the local talent-show circuit, so they hook up with the famed James “Thunder” Early (Murphy) to perform as his backup singers, which doesn’t sit too well with Effie. They’re coached along by Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx), who attempts to mold them into crossover artists, leaving the placid world of the R&B charts behind for the bigger fame and fortune of the nationwide pop charts.

Naturally, as some stars rise, others must fall. Early’s great, and wildly charismatic, but he’s not always what Curtis wants in a star who can appeal to a wide audience. Sowing the seeds of his own destruction, Jimmy falls prey to the usual pitfalls of stardom – money, drugs, and the knowledge that he’s no longer the man of the moment. Meanwhile, the Dreamettes are persevering, first as his backup trio and then on their own, conquering what was somewhat deprecatingly called the chitlin circuit. Curtis has grander plans, though; he wants his charges to eventually play Miami, a place far away from Detroit, a place where, as Curtis tells Jimmy, they won’t even let black people wait on tables. (Remember, this is in the early sixties.)

The movie is based on a Broadway musical, so the songs and choreography – all wonderful – are derived directly from the stage presentation; this may seem a little strange, because given the setting (Motown in the sixties), it seems like there should be bona fide R&B hits coming at you, although admittedly a lot of the songs do sound similar to chart-toppers from that time. In fact, the fashion styles and the songs remind you very strongly of some (figurative) heavyweights in the field at that time: Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. (It’s been said that the Dreamgirls were supposed to be The Supremes, but the movie was merely inspired by the real-life Supremes, which explains why there aren’t more real-life names bandied about in the movie; it’s not biographical story.)

There’s no question that Hudson, in her first role, and Murphy, the longtime comedy-film veteran, truly sparkle in their roles and were each deservedly nominated for Academy Awards (Hudson won; Murphy lost to Alan Arkin). As for Hudson – she can SING. I mean, she belts out the tunes with a fantastic mixture of passion, guts, and anger, as best befitting her largely (no pun intended) unhappy character, Effie. And when you watch Murphy, you completely forget he once recorded a song called “(My Girl Wants to) Party All the Time,” and the singer he most reminds you of is James Brown. He’s spectacular.

Not so spectactular was Foxx as Curtis Taylor; he was far too low key and, well, morose. He’s somewhat believable in turning from a naif in the music world to a cutthroat businessman, but he lacks the screen presence – the panache – to really pull it off. Denzel Washington was reportedly offered the role but declined on the grounds that he can’t sing – although I’m sure dubbing wouldn’t have made a huge difference.

Still, it’s not much to carp about. The songs are perfect, and the final number is a huge showstopper that’ll leave you clapping for more.

***

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