All of us have hopes and dreams and Hollywood has always been there to show us stories of people who follow theirs. These films come in many forms ranging from the underdog who takes on all obstacles, such as ‘Rocky’, to the working class students that surprise everyone with their academic success as seen in ‘Lean on Me’. What is extremely difficult is when you try to put a story like this to music. Add to this the recent number of films based on popular Broadway musicals that have failed and the odds are greatly against success. Fortunately, director Bill Condon found the right combination to bring the eighties stage hit, ‘Dreamgirls’ to life. Not only does this film work as a ‘dreams come true’ flick it works as a musical and a compelling drama. This is not altogether surprising since Condon hit the mark big time with his screenplay in 2002 for Chicago. The lightly veiled subjects of this story combined with all the pre-release hype set the bar extremely high for this movie and for the most part it hits the mark.
Set in the years between the sixties and late seventies ‘Dreamgirls’ chronicles the rise of an all girl singing group, the ‘Dreamettes’. Of course this is ‘loosely’ based on Diana Ross and the Supremes. Three friends, Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), the lead singer, Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) have great voices and dream of riding them to the top of the music industry. The problem is in Detroit back then and with ‘American Idol’ many decades away, getting noticed by someone who could help their careers seemed a dim prospect. One night at a local talent show they are approached by Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx). He is not actually in the music business but rather a Cadillac dealer with dreams of his own. Like any good car salesman he is slick and able to talk the girls into hiring him as their manager. He focuses his own personal ambitions on the talent of the girls and managers to arrange a deal with Marty Madison (Danny Glover), the manger of a popular R&B singer, James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy). Curtis strikes a deal with Marty for the ‘Dreamettes’ to sing backup for Thunder on his up coming tour. This is only the first step in Curtis’ plans for the young ladies. He quits his job as a car dealer and forms a record company, Rainbow Records. The company is staffed with Effie’s brother, C.C. (Keith Robinson) and a slightly shady friend, Wayne (Hinton Battle). There big break is dashed when their first major single is covered by a white group forcing C.C. and Wayne to resort to payola to get their record air play. The pay offs due manage to get Jimmy and the Dreamettes enough momentum for appearances in high profile venues such as the Apollo.
Naturally enough some relationships begin to form. Effie falls for the smooth talking but married Curtis while fellow Dreamette Lorrel starts an affair with Jimmy. The professional relationships begin to change with Marty leaving over a disagreement with Curtis concerning Jimmy’s sound. Curtis wants Jimmy to alter his music to appeal to a larger, whiter audience, a move that is less than successful. When Jimmy’s career slides Curtis refocuses his efforts on the Dreamettes. He replaces Effie as both the lead singer and this mistress by Denna resulting in Effie leaving the group. The reinvented group adds a replacement; Michelle Morris (Sharon Leal) and is christened the ‘Dreams’.Years later Effie is a mother on public assistance and an alcoholic. She is far from happy every time she hears Denna Jones and the Dreams on the radio. At this time Curtis wants to move Denna to film stardom with a role in an exploitive version of Cleopatra but Denna is shopping around to cut a better film deal on her own.
This is movie is extremely entertaining. While not quite up to the golden age Hollywood movies of the fifties it does return film to the right path for the genre. Instead of just using a flimsy excuse for a plot to connect a series of songs this film would actually stand on its own as a drama. Of course the music is pivotal to both the story line and the enjoyment here. There is an energy that pervades the film, drawing the audience into it. The cinematography is excellent, bright and vivid. The use of lighting reinforces the emotional mood created by the actors. Fame is something that so many people want but few realize how harmful getting you dreams can be. For Effie she is rejected for being who she really is. Overweight with too ethnic in her look and sound she is considered someone who could not appeal to the all important white audience of the time. The one flaw, if it could be called that, is the tone of the film does tend towards the overly melodramatic. Still, the story is well constructed and it is hard to believe that this is the first musical directed by Bill Condon. He certainly kept his eyes open during the filming of Chicago where he served as the script writer. He inserts the music naturally into the film really selling it to the audience.
This is a dream cast. It is exceptionally rare for a first time actress to make the kind of premier as Jennifer Hudson does here. She certain embodies the concept of a person pulling herself up from defeat to realize her dreams. The public first saw Ms Hudson on American Idol where she was voted off. Well, success is the best revenge and now with long list of Best Supporting Actress awards, including the Golden Globes and Oscar, she is more of a success than the person who won Idol that year. She not only has an amazingly strong and forceful voice this young lady can act. She brings pathos to Effie, an ability to connect with the audience on an emotional level. In some ways the real life of Beyoncé Knowles mirrors her character here. She was once a lead singer in Destiny’s Child who combined her singing career with acting. Instead of demanding a lead role right away she has taken smaller roles to improve her acting and the result is she is perfect here. Eddie Murphy may be known for his outrageous comedy and over the top films but this film demonstrates that he really can act. Once again Jamie Foxx shows that he can take on a difficult, somewhat slimy role with talent and commitment.
Dreamworks has no less that five variations for the DVD release. There is the normal choice between the Pan & Scan and anamorphic widescreen. Lets forget the ‘this film has been modified’, P&S, it hardly shows the great framing of the scenes. There is also a two disc ‘Show Stopper’ version with a nice selection of extras. This variation is available in DVD, Blu-ray and HD-DVD. The video is near reference quality. The color balance is incredibly well done with no hint of defect. The Dolby 5.1 audio is rich, enfolding the room with all the speakers given a proper workout. The two disc version has about a dozen alternate scenes featuring the show stopping musical numbers. There is also a featurette, ‘Building a Dream’ that details how this film was put together. Even if you think you don’t like musicals this film will entertain you for years to come.