Friday, April 1, 2011

The Movie List: Dreamgirls (2006)

Film: Dreamgirls
Director: Bill Condon
Oscar nominations: 8 (Supporting Actor, Eddie Murphy; Supporting Actress, Jennifer Hudson*; Art Direction; Costume Design; Original Song (three songs from the film were nominated: "Patience," "Love You I Do," "Listen"); Sound Mixing*)
*denotes win

The first time I saw Dreamgirls was in January 2007, when it finally found its way to the local theater in Henderson, North Carolina. I remembered being rather surprised by the turnout: it was the first evening showing on a Friday night, the film had just picked up eight Oscar nominations and featured a cast that was famous enough to pique a lot of interest in the area, and yet I was the only one there. This was unusual to me, and certainly an anomaly, since the film did very well at the nationwide box office. But I can't help as seeing it as a metaphor for the film's Oscar nominations: despite all the buzz and fervor and most-nominations status, it still managed to disappoint on its expectations by missing the key races.

Dreamgirls, for the uninitiated, is a musical based on the Broadway hit, itself loosely based on Diana Ross and the Supremes. Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles), Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) form a singing group called the Dreamettes, and perform at a local Detroit amateur night in hopes of scoring a recording deal. Though they lose the contest, they catch the attention of part-time-record-producer, part-time-car-salesman Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx), who lets them sing backup to swaggering soul star James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy). As the group's fame and fortunes rise, each one of them finds a different route, leading to Deena becoming the lead singer over Effie, who then finds a difficult path of her own. Everyone has to contend with the changing times, as James struggles with toning down his wild, raw sound to appeal to white radio stations and the newly-renamed Deena Jones and the Dreams make the march from girl-group pop to disco.

The film is a terrific spectacle, bursting with gorgeous costumes, toe-tapping musical numbers that hark back to the best of Motown, and a great sense of fun early on. Director Bill Condon, who also adapted the screenplay, does an excellent job at staging the musical numbers in interesting and exciting ways, though not always consistently: for the most part, songs are performed as recording sessions or concerts, which makes the few moments when they're sung as part of the story somewhat jarring, as if someone misplaced them. The story's multi-decade span means that characters sometimes disappear and then reappear without warning, and much like the Dreamettes, as time goes on the film becomes increasingly Deena-focused. While this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it means that Lorrell's story gets shafted in favor of the film's bigger stars, which doesn't do justice to Rose's phenomenal acting talents. The only other complaint for the film is that the end ties things up just a little too tidily, but that is only a small quibble.

Condon assembled a fantastic ensemble here, and there are great performances all-around. Beyonce, in her acting debut, gives a far better performance than people expected: she nails Deena's youthful naivete in the beginning and her quite rage in the back half of the film. And naturally, she blows away all of her songs, especially her big solo number "Listen." As I mentioned above, Rose is terrific despite her limited screentime. Danny Glover has a great small role, Keith Robinson does well as Effie's songwriting brother, and Jamie Foxx is near-perfect at playing the oily Taylor. But the two standout performances are the ones that earned their Oscar nominations. Murphy is nothing less than revelatory, giving one of the best performances of his career by alternating between Early's anarchic, soulful on-stage persona and his damaged, drug-addicted, womanizing reality. He's a real rock star, grappling with his inner demons and the need to be wild and loose, and Murphy is a perfect fit for that as an actor (ignore his films since he discovered the fat suit and look back at his SNL, Beverly Hills Cop, Coming to America days: it makes sense). And Hudson, the American Idol finalist making her acting debut, is a true find: though she sometimes struggles during the narrative, dialogue-driven scenes (easy to forgive), when the musical numbers hit, she's able to inject them with the emotional heft they need to make an impact. When she sings the showstopping number "And I am Telling You I'm Not Going," making it a heartbreaking and desperate plea for stardom, it becomes clear that a star has been born here. Hopefully, she'll get more musicals in the future.

Dreamgirls has a few flaws, but its a great movie musical that razzles and dazzles in all the right ways. Come for the songs, dances, and setpieces, but stay for the moving performances.


Movies on my Mind said...

I totally didn't get this movie. I love Eddie and thought he was the best thing about it, but the movie felt like a girls' movie.

Jason H. said...

Nothing wrong with a little girl power every now and then ;)