Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls poses an interesting problem for me. I think it’s wonderful filmmaking. I think it has some very fine performances. Its story is engaging (if a little — OK, a lot — on the standard backstage bio side) and its characters are interesting and generally sympathetic. I find its musical numbers very nicely staged. And I find its songs … well, I find its musical numbers very nicely staged. Therein lies the problem. It’s not an entirely new problem. I think Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) is one of the filmmaker’s most enchanting works — only the songs aren’t very good, and this is a decided drawback in a musical film.
It’s not that the songs in Dreamgirls are bad. They’re perfectly adequate, and they’re fine while they’re on the screen. But damned if I can remember a single one of them afterwards — with the possible exception of the show-stopping “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” (even there its more the words than the music I remember). And, no, this isn’t coming from someone who particularly objects to the Broadwayification of the Motown sound. I’m strictly a British Invasion boy when it comes to music of the ’60s and ’70s. The Supremes were not even on my radar. So here I find myself praising a musical film where I can’t remember a note of the music. And yet I think the film is good enough in every other way that I don’t have a problem with that.
As part of the revitalization of the musical film that started in 2001 with Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (still getting my vote as the best of this new wave of musicals), Dreamgirls is assured a place in the genre’s history — certainly it will never be the embarrassing footnote that Chris Columbus’ Rent (2005) already is. In fact, while I’d rank it below Moulin Rouge! (and below Bryan Barber’s underappreciated Idlewild (2006), for that matter), I’m much more impressed by Dreamgirls than I am by the darling of the new musicals, Rob Marshall’s Chicago (2002).
Now Chicago is a film with memorable songs, but it’s such a cynical, ice-cold work that I ultimately don’t much care. At least with Dreamgirls it’s possible to care what happens to the characters. In Chicago does anyone really care whether or not Renee Zellweger swings? (Well, there were times during the “Roxie Hart” number when it seemed like a pretty good idea to me, but that’s a separate issue.) Here, however, we have a film in which it’s hard not to like the majority of the characters.
Ironically, Bill Condon wrote the screenplay for Chicago as well, but that coldness of tone was inherent in the material. It’s definitely not a trait found in Condon’s Gods and Monsters (1998) or Kinsey (2004). In terms of feeling, Dreamgirls is much more clearly part and parcel of the Condon universe. And like those earlier films, it never strays terribly far from his central preoccupation with persons who are somehow different, who are marginalized by society, or who are expected to behave in a certain way in order to find acceptance. As a gay filmmaker, it obviously wasn’t too much of a stretch for Condon to note the similarity between a black singing group being told to tone down their blackness in order to appeal to the larger white audience and a gay man being told to play it straight in order to appeal to the larger straight audience. And it’s the pain beneath all that that drives the emotional core of the movie, which is ultimately about being who you are, not being what people would like you to be.
As a story, Dreamgirls is a fairly straightforward showbiz rags to riches tale. It’s the details that make the difference. It lies in the tragedy of the “too black” James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy), who can never be the thing he wants to be and is stymied at every attempt to be something more. It lies in the soul-selling of Deena (Beyonce Knowles), who only finds her real voice at the end, after being kept a deliberately vacant talent on which her husband-producer Curtis (Jamie Foxx) could graft the image he wanted for years. And, of course, it rests solidly on Effie (newcomer Jennifer Hudson), the remarkable original voice of the Dreams, who was booted out in favor of the slimmer, whiter Deena. Everything you have heard about Jennifer Hudson’s performance is true, and the film affords her two tremendous numbers that will prove it to you.
If the film has a central failing, it’s that it tries to do too much in the course of its narrative. Its background of social unrest and black empowerment stays in the background — almost as if it’s being kept there by Foxx’s character, who wants to keep everything upscale and upbeat and message-free. There’s also a slightly uneven aspect to the film’s musical structure in its shifts from performance numbers to songs integrated into the narrative. There’s too much of the former and too little of the latter, so that when someone breaks into song when not onstage or in a recording studio, the results are jarring. These, however, are small concerns in a film this overall rich. Rated PG-13 for language, some sexuality and drug content.
â reviewed by Ken Hanke