Film: Motown Redux

Entertaining Dreamgirls hits the right notes

Dec 20, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Paramount Classics

(L-R) Anika Noni Rose, Beyonce Knowles and Jennifer Hudson are the Dreamgirls.

We walk side by side through life, but we might never fully understand one another's worlds: those who embrace musicals and those who don't. For some, the unabashed emotionalism of swingin', singin' drama might work only on the stage; for others, it doesn't work at all. And for the rest of us, the mini-revival in the movie musical ushered in by the Oscar-winning success of Chicago feels like an unexpected gift — even if it means enduring the walking fingernail-on-a-chalkboard that was Gerard Butler as the Phantom of the Opera.

Dreamgirls arrives as the latest attempt at a stage-to-screen musical translation — and in the wake of the double-whiff that was last year's Rent and The Producers, even those of us always eager to tap our toes were crossing our arms in "show-me" skepticism. This 20-year-old paean to a 40-years-gone era could have felt just as dated as Rent or lost its energetic live-performance mojo. But writer-director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey) delivers a version that's simply, unobtrusively satisfying — entertainment writ large and without apology.

The tale opens in the 1960s at a Detroit talent competition. A vocal trio calling themselves the Dreamettes — Deena (Beyoncé Knowles), Effie (Jennifer Hudson) and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) — fails to win the evening, but they capture the attention of Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a car salesman with visions of becoming an entertainment manager.

Taylor successfully wrangles a gig for the Dreamettes as touring backup singers for popular Soul performer James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy), but soon the women promise to be even bigger than the headliner.

And when fame enters the equation, relationships shift and become complicated.

The obvious roman à clef similarities between characters here and certain Motown-era celebrities — Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, The Jackson 5, etc. — received plenty of attention when the musical first hit the stage, and maybe the idea that you're getting a thinly-disguised tell-all makes the story more appealing. But Dreamgirls doesn't need to be about real people to show off some interesting real-life ideas.

Condon's adaptation of Tom Eyen's book touches on the diluting of Black music into something palatable enough to appeal to white audiences. The irony of the scene in which a hopelessly white-bread cover version of a Soul song hits the charts is that Taylor is doing essentially the same thing when he replaces Effie's big-belter pipes with Deena's "softer" voice as the lead singer.

It's an interesting take on the Motown legacy, but Dreamgirls still works best as an old-fashioned backstage melodrama full of strong performances and big production values. The songs by Eyen and Henry Krieger, while not exactly reminiscent of the era they're trying to evoke, still provide catchy hooks for the various montages and emotional crescendos. Foxx sinks his teeth into Taylor's manipulative side, and Knowles does fine work with a more low-key role.

But the show-stopper is ex-American Idol contestant Hudson, and not just because she gets to let loose on "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." You'll hear her name a lot during awards season, and for once it's justified — she creates a fully realized, smartly acted character.

If only the same were true for the other much-touted cast member, Eddie Murphy. Yes, he has a decent enough voice, but he's woefully inadequate at giving James Early the right edge. He's got to be a force-of-nature-Soul-machine whose despair at being put through the Disco Pop processor is palpable.

Yet there's no power at all to the scene where Early disintegrates onstage, because Murphy never seems like a guy who has a problem doing exactly what's required to make everyone like him. Don't call it a comeback — if anyone besides Eddie Murphy gave this same performance, it would be thoroughly (and justifiably) ignored.

Fortunately, his is a small enough chunk of Dreamgirls that he can't spoil it entirely. Condon's pacing is just right at keeping the film's energy high, and he stays out of the way of the music and the simple human drama.

On a certain level, it might feel like only a minor variation on a hundred other weepies about the perils of reaching for fame — A Star Is Born with a little more funk in its stride. Yet this is exactly the kind of story that soars with a score. You simply have to be one of those people who believe feelings can hit you harder when the characters sing out their pleasures and pains. Grade: B