Listen, I could tick off places where Dreamgirls trips up in transporting Michael Bennett’s 1981 Broadway musical phenom to film. But it’s hard to complain when you’re at the party of the year. This baby dazzles like nothing else anywhere. Starting with its dream cast, led by Jamie Foxx and Beyonce, Dreamgirls is a movie that has everything: a blazing new star in Jennifer Hudson, a riveting, revitalized Eddie Murphy, a hot-lick score by Henry Krieger and the late Tom Eyen, a timely story about how music can sell its soul to greed and compromise, and a dynamo of a director and screenwriter in Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey). He’s the white guy with the brass to direct a tale of black artists who break faith with race, family and R&B to swim in the mainstream. As he proved with his script for Chicago, Condon also knows his way around a musical. He keeps Dreamgirls charging until it moves right into your heart.
You’ll hear denials that Dreamgirls has anything to do with the Supremes, who hit a girl-group peak in the 1960s under Motown mogul Berry Gordy. It was Gordy who replaced lead singer Florence Ballard with Diana Ross, Ballard’s pal from the Detroit projects whom Gordy saw as prettier, skinnier and likelier to cross over to white audiences. Ballard, who battled alcohol and depression, died in 1976 at thirty-two.
In Dreamgirls, it’s Curtis Taylor Jr. (Foxx), a Detroit car salesman turned talent manager, who replaces Effie White (Hudson) as lead singer of the Dreams with her childhood pal and backup singer Deena Jones (Beyonce). Curtis cites the same drill about looks, weight and white appeal. So much for coincidental.
And so much the better if you leave it at that, since Dreamgirls is hunting bigger game than biopic exploitation. Even more onscreen than it was onstage, Dreamgirls is a story of its time. Condon lets the civil-rights movement slip into frame with headlines, news clips and a startling scene in which Effie confronts a riot in the streets with stunned silence. But Condon never stops the hurtling motion of his film to preach. It’s the war for black equality in the music industry that pulls his focus and pulls us in. For Curtis, money is all. Sex isn’t worth the effort unless he’s having it on with his meal ticket, hence the switch from rebellious diva Effie to the more malleable Deena.
A talent contest opens the film with Curtis putting in a fix against the Dreams — Effie, Deena and Lorrell (the resplendently gifted Anika Noni Rose). He wants them to sing backup for James “Thunder” Early (Murphy), a James Brown-like soul man self-destructing with girls, drugs and a refusal to fake his way to the top with the mellow sound that sells. It’s C.C. White (the warmly persuasive Keith Robinson), Effie’s brother, who writes the song, “Cadillac Car,” that gets them noticed until a white singer records a sappy cover version that goes Top Forty. That shifts Curtis into overdrive. He’ll zap the black out of Jimmy and the Dreams so they can play white clubs, hit the pop charts and make it in Hollywood. For Deena, now Curtis’ wife and slave, the change brings success, as it does to Lorrell and Effie’s replacement, Michelle (the excellent Sharon Leal). For Jimmy and Effie, Curtis’ dream is soon their waking nightmare.
Which brings us to the inane criticism that Dreamgirls is a show queen’s campfest — all flash, no substance. There’s plenty of sparkle in Sharen Davis’ costumes, which cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler (Friday Night Lightse) shoots for maximum eye-popping, but Condon isn’t blind to the shadows that overtake these characters. Dreamgirls deals with massive cultural change and assimilation. It looks ahead to the black performers who will make it by staying true to their rap, but also to those who dial down to fit the American Idol-ization of the music world.
Hudson, 25, appeared on Idol‘s third season, a runner-up reduced to the slag heap by judge Simon Cowell. What sweet revenge! Hudson’s film debut is a glorious, Oscar-ready cause for celebration. She can act. She can nail a laugh with the sassy curl of her lip. She can break your heart by letting her eyes show how she hurts. And she can sing until the roof comes off the multiplex. As it will when she tears into “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” a war cry of a song in which Effie futilely battles to stop Curtis from throwing her out of the Dreams and his bed. For those, me included, who saw the great Jennifer Holliday play Effie onstage, the moment is revelatory. Hudson seems to absorb Holliday’s spirit while making the role her own. It’s a tribute to both their talents.
And Murphy, 45, is electrifying in his riskiest role ever as a star on the skids. His comic edge hasn’t been this sharp since SNL, and he sings and struts with astonishing skill. But it’s the fear eating at Jimmy that brings out the best in Murphy. Jimmy is a star who has used too many women (his wife and Lorrell, his current mistress) and abused too many drugs. Murphy illuminates the flaws without dimming the wicked charm. Jimmy’s meltdown onstage, stopping himself midballad to gyrate, drop his pants and cut into an R&B groove (“Jimmy got/Jimmy got/Jimmy got soul”), is Murphy’s finest screen moment. He has never reached this far emotionally or dug this deep.
All the actors respond full-throttle to the material. Foxx is magnetic as the bad guy, showing a grasp of the insecurities that drive the controlling Curtis. And Beyonce, looking and sounding gorgeous, gets as far inside Deena as the underwritten role allows. She helped co-write a new Krieger song, “Listen,” that adds grit and touching gravity to Deena.
Krieger’s music has taken hits from critics for not being Motown enough. Duh. It’s a Broadway score, channeling its force and feeling through a Broadway idiom. Condon follows suit, dedicating the movie to Michael Bennett, who died of AIDS in 1987, borrowing bits of Bennett’s original staging and even using the show’s Playbill in the final credits. Despite transitional bumps — the first switch from actors singing onstage to singing off is jarring — Condon does Dreamgirls proud. His sublime movie is more than one of the year’s best or a fan’s ultimate appreciation. It’s what he did for love.