Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 15, 2017)
With 2006’s Dreamgirls, the movie musical showed life for the first time since 2002’s smash hit Chicago. While the $103 million take of Dreamgirls didn’t compete with the $172 million earned by Chicago, it certainly looked pretty good.
This seems especially true compared with then-contemporary flops like Rent, The Producers and The Phantom of the Opera. Since many critics liked Dreamgirls as well, it looked like the flick could emulate Chicago’s Oscar success.
Alas, that wasn’t to be. Yes, Dreamgirls’ eight nominations led the 2006 pack, but three of those were for songs, and it won only two awards: Jennifer Hudson took home the Best Supporting Actress trophy, and the movie also got Best Achievement in Sound Mixing. Dreamgirls failed to get a nod in the Best Picture category and generally found disappointment on Oscar night.
Although Dreamgirls may not have lived up to all expectations, I think the end result offers a generally winning experience. Based semi-loosely on the real-life story of the Supremes, Dreamgirls takes us to Detroit in the early 1960s to meet an amateur singing group called the Dreamettes.
Big-voiced Effie White (Hudson) takes the lead, while Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles) and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) handle the backup vocals. Local car dealer Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx) sees them in a amateur contest and thinks they possess the talent to break through to the big time.
In the meantime, they need to rise through the ranks, and they get their professional start as backing vocalists for R&B singer James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy). This takes them on the road and gets them started in the business.
Eventually Curtis renames the group “The Dreams” and launches them as an act in their own right. In this transition, he decides to make Deena the focus of the trio, for she may lack Effie’s vocal power but she offers a more appealing presence as a front woman. The movie follows the professional and personal ups and downs experienced by the women and those close to them.
Am I the only one who thinks Dreamgirls would work better if it didn’t attempt to tell the tale of the Supremes? On one hand, that makes the story a little more provocative, but I think it causes more distractions than it needs.
As I watched the flick, I constantly tried to connect the movie’s fictionalized events with real-life occurrences, and that made it tough to concentrate on the plot and characters. If the picture went with a more generalized look at a Motown-style group and wasn’t so obviously based on the Supremes, I think it’d be a more involving effort.
Once we get past those distractions, though, Dreamgirls presents an effective and entertaining flick. I’ve often referred to my general dislike of musicals, but this one manages to avoid many of the usual pitfalls.
One positive comes from the movie’s use of its musical numbers, as it only occasionally presents the contrived notion in which characters sing their dialogue. Most of the time Dreamgirls presents its tunes via live or studio performances by the characters.
The film doesn’t just take us to the stage in an ordinary way, though, as it integrates the songs with montages and other action. I very much like the fact that Dreamgirls doesn’t often stop the action to make the participants sing their thoughts, so the tunes flow more smoothly and work well.
This factor allows Dreamgirls to move pretty well most of the time. The first half goes especially well, as it speeds ahead quickly and wraps us up in the world of the Dreams. We get involved in the characters and the settings, and we enjoy the ride we take.
Once Effie becomes a problem and leaves the group, however, the movie loses steam. Much of that comes from the absence of tension, as the natural sense of conflict – both romantic and professional – that occurs with Effie in the group creates much of the film’s drama. With her out of the loop, the movie droops and tends to meander toward its conclusion.
The other issue comes from the lackluster nature of the Deena character. She never develops into much of a personality, a factor that relates both to the role as written and as performed by Knowles.
Some of this may be intentional, and one could possibly interpret it as a slap at Diana Ross. Perhaps Dreamgirls intends to demonstrate that she always should have stayed in the background and never have become the star.
I wouldn’t agree with that thesis, as no one enjoys such a long, successful career without very clear mass appeal and talent. I don’t think the movie’s portrait of Deena/Diana as something of a cipher is an accurate one.
Perhaps I shouldn’t blame the script and I should pin the criticism on Knowles. She offers a lovely presence and doesn’t embarrass herself in the role, but she lacks much heft in the part.
Knowles does fine during the first half, as the flick concentrates more on Effie and Curtis during that span, but once Deena becomes more of the focus, Knowles doesn’t carry matters well. Her lackluster performance means that the movie drags in its third act.
Dreamgirls also loses points due to a distant turn from Foxx. Cast in the Berry Gordy role, Foxx never quite connects with the part. He conducts himself as aloof and imperious without any heart or real personality.
As with Deena, perhaps this was intentional and meant as a commentary on Gordy himself, but it doesn’t work very well for the movie. Foxx simply doesn’t seem to involve himself in the role, so he often looks a bit distracted, like he’s mentally working on another film.
As I mentioned already, Hudson won an Oscar as Effie. While I don’t know if I believe she truly deserved it, I won’t clearly say that she didn’t, either. I didn’t feel tremendously impressed by her acting chops, as I think she seems a little forced at times.
Nonetheless, Hudson inhabits the role with reasonable effectiveness and has the right voice for it. She does what she needs to do for this pivotal part.
Murphy didn’t win an Oscar as Early, but he deserved one. Many will blame the release of the execrable Norbit smack in the middle of Oscar voting season for Murphy’s loss, and that may be the case.
If so, that’s a shame, as the voters shouldn’t have allowed one role to affect their judgment of another. Murphy proves sensational as Early in arguably the best work he’s committed to film.
During the movie’s first act, we can overlook Murphy’s gifts, as he basically comes across as “Eddie being Eddie”. Those portions cast him fully in James Brown impersonation mode. Actually, that’s a little unfair, as Murphy’s early shows more depth than simple mimicry, but those elements of the part don’t force him to demonstrate much beyond what we’ve seen from him in comedic roles.
However, as the movie progresses, Murphy brings out more from the part. Early experiences professional and personal ups and downs that Murphy conveys with real dimensionality. He doesn’t stick to stock mannerisms.
Instead, Murphy turns Early into a rich, full character who offers the most interesting and involving part of the flick. While I think Alan Arkin is a fine actor, there’s no way his one-dimensional shtick as the drug-using grandpa in Little Miss Sunshine merited an Oscar victory over Murphy’s work here.
Otherwise, Dreamgirls probably got the Oscar consideration it deserved. Entertaining but flawed, it keeps us interested for much of its running time, though it loses us somewhat during the third act. This is a better than average movie musical but not one that I’d consider to be a classic.