Dreamgirls took a long time to make the trip from Broadway to the screen, so long that when this film appeared I had all but forgotten that it had first been a play. Big and glossy, this movie is very successful at entertaining you, even if it does seem to play it a little safe at times. The biggest impact of this movie may just be serving notice of arrival of a potent new singing talent.
Like the original stage production, the film fictionalizes the early days of R&B music and Motown, although the filmmakers took the unusual step of actually “de-fictionalizing” some elements of the story, moving events from Chicago to Detroit and making certain characters more similar to their real-life inspirations.
It’s the early sixties, and Marty Madison (Danny Glover) has a problem. The backup singers for his star, a temperamental James Brown-like singer named James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy), has bolted because the very married Early can’t keep his hands to himself. At a local talent show, car dealer and aspiring music promoted Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx) spots a young trio of girl singers, Effie (Jennifer Hudson), Deena (Beyoncé Knowles) and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose), who call themselves the Dreamettes. He is sufficiently impressed to convince Marty to sign them up as Jimmy’s new backing singers.
Effie’s brother, C.C. (Keith Robinson), pens a hit song that shoots up the R&B charts but its progress on the pop charts is stunted when a white, Pat Boone-like crooner records his own version. Realizing that in order to compete with the mainstream (meaning white) acts, he has to play their game, Curtis leverages his dealership to finance a payola campaign that succeeds in breaking Jimmy Early and the Dreamettes onto the mainstream charts.
Curtis has bigger plans. Over Marty’s objections, he wants to start booking their act into traditionally white venues. He succeeds into getting them booked into a Miami hotel that has never known an African-American performer whose name wasn’t Sammy Davis, Jr. In order to makes this work, however, he forces Jimmy to change his act, making him less James Brown, more Perry Como. Unable to change his spots, however, the singer lapses into his patented funk music midway through the first song.
Curtis sends Jimmy back to the “chitlin’ circuit” while he refashions the Dreamettes into a mainstream pop trio called the Dreams. There’s only one catch. Instead of Effie, the younger, prettier Deena will be the lead singer. Stung by the this, and the belief that Curtis is cheating on her with Deena, Effie begins a downward spiral that results in her being ejected from the group.
Those who remember Eddie Murphy’s ill-fated venture into pop music back in the eighties, his performance here will be a revelation. Maybe he needing the time to mature as a performer or maybe his voice is just better suited to sixties funk music than bland eighties pop. Either way, hopefully the attention and acclaim he deservedly received for this movie will distract him from any attempt to make Norbit 2.
If Murphy is a revelation, I don’t know what word to use for Jennifer Hudson. The American Idol finalist leaves all expectations in the dust with a performance that deserves comparison, musically, to Aretha Franklin. She more than holds up her end of the bargain dramatically as well, standing toe-to-toe with the likes Jamie Foxx. It’s little wonder she’s been tapped to star in a film biography of the Queen of Soul. I expect to hear from her again and for a long time to come.
Of course, a big reason for seeing a movie like Dreamgirls is the music, which spans one-and-a-half decades from early R&B and soul music to disco. The story integrates the songs seamlessly into the narrative as they serve both to tell the story in the fashion of a traditional musical but also as examples of the Dreams’ music from whatever era the story is recounting at the movie.
If you’re a fan of this era of music, you’ll certainly being able to enjoy what’s offered hear, but then again, nothing’s stopping you from spinning one of your old Motown records either. Dreamgirls obviously won’t replace the music to which it pays tribute, but it might help you appreciate it a little more.