**** out of *****
I’m no expert on movie musicals (nor do I wish to be), but I think what makes any musical work is the strength of the musical performances, rather than its plot or characters.
OK, perhaps that point is a bit obvious, but the musical performances in “Dreamgirls” are fiery and passionate and sung with utter conviction by the lead actors, and it is this more than anything that makes the film a joy.
Based on the Broadway musical of the same name, “Dreamgirls” is a story about The Dreamettes, a trio of supremely talented 1960s R&B singers who start out singing back-up to Motown dynamo James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy).
The Dreamettes – Deena, Effie and Lorrell – are played with spunky vitality by Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson and Anika Noni Rose, respectively, and early on we understand that Deena is the beauty, Lorrell is the star-struck dreamer and Effie is the one with the pipes.
After singing back-up for Early, the Dreamettes’ manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (a cool and callous Jamie Foxx) works on toning down the girls’ overtly Motown sound into something poppier that will sell with mainstream America.
One of the first things Taylor suggests the now-rechristened Dreams do is have the more conventionally attractive – but less musically talented – Deena sing lead vocals, as opposed to Effie. This creates a whole bevy of problems between both Effie and Taylor, who are sleeping together, and Effie and the rest of The Dreams, since she is entirely too proud and strong-willed to simply sing back-up.
But enough plot summary. “Dreamgirls” is a film about great music, where each actor gets his or her chance to shine.
Murphy imbues Early with a cocksure attitude that is equal parts James Brown, Little Richard and Marvin Gaye, and he sings with charisma on songs like “Fake Your Way to the Top” and “Cadillac Car.”
Then there’s Beyonce, whose Deena Jones, despite never feeling entirely developed as a character (she’s too passive for much of the film), is especially compelling on a song like “Listen” where she sings passionately straight into the camera.
But the film undeniably belongs to Hudson, whose titanic vocal prowess is exhibited in full on a song like “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” where Hudson delivers a feverish performance that exemplifies her character and proves her chops as a singer.
Director Bill Condon would have done well to tone down the film’s showy visual style (do we really need so many montages?), since all the best parts of the film occur when he just lets the camera sit still and marvel at the musical skill of his actors.
Despite this, “Dreamgirls” is exuberant fun, and it even seems to have a message about the commercialization of music and the difficulty of pursuing art for art’s sake.
Staff writer Jeff Schwartz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the individual author and not necessarily those of the Collegian.