The Motown Musical.
How It Rates: ***1/2
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson
Red Flags: Some language, brief sex and drug references
Bill Condon knows how to make a musical. He did it with Chicago, and he applies the same formula here, taking a Broadway hit and translating it to film in a credible, believable form. It works precisely because the music flows naturally from the storyline, most of it staged as performances in clubs or recording studios. We don't have to overextend our suspension of disbelief, nor are we dragged into forgettable numbers for the sake of more music.
Dreamgirls borrows from the stories of The Supremes and Motown, following the rise of aspiring girl group The Dreams. Deena (Knowles), Effie (Hudson) and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) perform at a talent show in 1960's Detroit. They don't win, but they do get noticed by manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Foxx), a minor player in the record business who offers them their first big break as backup singers for James "Thunder" Early (Murphy) -- a hybrid of James Brown and Little Richard.
Taylor sees a future for the group in finding a sound which will make black music palatable to white radio, the same marketing philosophy Motown used. The urgency becomes especially clear after a white cover version of the Dreams' first hit eclipses the original. Even with payola, a sizable color barrier still dominates pop music radio.
The film follows the inherent pitfalls of mega stardom. Effie and Curtis fall in love, but Effie's diva demeanor and weight gain leads to her ouster. Early gets tired of softening his sound for marketing sake and regresses back into his wild stage persona. Deena rakes in Diana Ross-like success as the group's lead but has trouble finding her own voice. C.C. (Keith Robinson), the group's songwriter, begins to resent Curtis placing business before music. Effie, meanwhile, struggles to put her life back together as a washed-up singer.
The music is awash in soul and Motown nostalgia. It's highly enjoyable coming from Hudson, an American Idol reject who clearly shows she's no loser with an Oscar nomination and a powerful voice to back it up. In her performance as Effie, I have no doubt she drew inspiration from being booted off the country's most popular talent show. Now she's sticking it to Simon's bunch and loving it. She has at least two show stopping numbers. Eddie Murphy does his own singing, too. Many of you will remember his one-hit wonder "Party All The Time" from the 1980's with Rick James backing him up. He's also got an Oscar nomination in the bag.
Dreamgirls failed to earn nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, and that's the great mystery. One possible reason I envision is the Academy deciding Condon already had his moment with Chicago, a Best Picture winner. Another possibility: voters thought the movie had too many stage numbers, making it less a movie and more a filmed play. Split hairs if you want, but we know a winner when we see one. Right, Jennifer?