In a great early scene in Dreamgirls, a film adaptation of the popular Broadway musical, a minor Detroit R&B singer named James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy) comes backstage to meet his newly hired back-up singers for the night, a teen trio called the Dreamettes who have just been discovered by used-car-salesman/music hustler Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) at a local amateur night. Early has been complaining to Taylor and his manager Marty Madison (Danny Glover) that he always works with two girls, but his protest dissolves mid-sentence when he catches a glimpse of the Dreamettes and gets visions of what kind of trouble he could get into on tour with these girls.
Moments later, the eager Dreamettes stand around the piano as Early teaches them one of his songs, taking turns singing the back-up part: Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) with a lovely high-pitched flutter; Deana (Beyoncé Knowles) with smooth assurance; Effie (Jennifer Hudson) with gospel-schooled power. As Early turns in delight back to Marty and Curtis, director Bill Condon cuts on action to Early and the Dreamettes on stage, performing the song in full roar.
It's a great, cinematic moment that rockets the Broadway material into a new medium and sweeps up a film audience sure to be helpless in the face of its charms. Later in Dreamgirls -- long after Effie has been booted from the group and the Dreamettes have become the mega-selling Deena & the Dreams -- Condon uses the same device in a surely intentional rhyme. This time it's Effie, after years in the wilderness, trying to sell herself to the uninterested owner of a struggling nightclub during an audition. As Effie's performance gains power and the nightclub owner's interest picks up, Condon transforms the scene into a packed nighttime performance at the same bar.
These moments are so strong that you have to wonder why Condon couldn't keep it up. Condon (Gods & Monsters, Kinsey) wrote the screenplay for the Oscar-winning Chicago but takes on both screenwriting and directing roles here. Dreamgirls is the superior film musical, but Condon's direction is uneven enough that Dreamgirls is ultimately a very good movie that gives you the sense it could have been a great one.
The movie has a compelling story -- a roman à clef about Berry Gordy's Motown and the Supremes that is also a broader look at a period of incredibly rich transition in African-American pop music, from R&B "race records" to integrationist soul to '70s message music to disco and funk and even a hint of hip-hop. The casting is terrific, with powerhouse performances from Murphy and Hudson obscuring solid work from Foxx and Knowles. And the music is at least halfway there.
But Dreamgirls is often too beholden to its Broadway origins instead of taking the raw material from the stage and converting it fully into a movie. The first appearance of the Dreams at Harlem's Apollo Theater eschews verisimilitude to go crazy Broadway-style, with a three-tiered stage of flashing lights and a phalanx of balletic male back-up dancers. (At the Apollo? In the early-to-mid '60s?) An awkward montage about using payola to help cross records over to white stations that has Foxx and his cohorts dancing (and singing) in the streets just falls flat. And, presumably because of its Broadway origins (I assume this holds for a stage musical I've never seen), Dreamgirls doesn't seem to have a good sense of its own musical strengths.
The film's finest scene might be during Effie's first solo showcase, when she's practicing a song (the chorus refrain is "You're the perfect man for me/I love you I do") along with her songwriter brother and backing band at Taylor's studio. Hudson's performance -- both vocal and the way she acts though song -- is simply awesome. And the song is terrific -- it actually sounds like a lost '60s Motown soul staple. And yet, later in the film, when Effie's brother tells her he's finally written a hit for her ("One Night"), the more "serious" and melodramatic composition is maybe the worst song in the movie.
But these flaws never threaten to sink a movie with such enormous charms. Former American Idol contestant Hudson is simply stunning in her film debut as the proud diva Effie. Especially in the early scenes, Hudson is about the most dynamic presence seen on the big screen all year.
When we first see her, leading her group at an amateur show through the high-stepping soul number "Move," Hudson devours the stage, her gospel-fueled performance more musical than theatrical, convincingly situating Effie as a deep-soul powerhouse in the mode of an Aretha Franklin or Etta James.
Stepping offstage and into the face of Taylor, who offers the girls a shot backing up Early, Deena and Lorrell squeal in delight, but Effie's eyes flair as she snorts with regal obliviousness, "I don't do back-up." I think I might have gasped in audible delight at Hudson's regal obliviousness and lack of actorly affect.
But as great as Hudson is, she gets stiff competition from Murphy, who brings some autobiography to this performance as a chitlin-circuit vet struggling to maintain relevance in the face of cultural shifts. Murphy's performance caricatures early on are vibrant and funny in the spirit of his early work on Saturday Night Live, but this yields to a deeper characterization over time (watch Murphy winning his Oscar when Early responds to bad news by matter of factly taking out his heroin stash in front of terrified onlookers) without losing the character's crucial role as comic relief.
By comparison, Foxx and Beyoncé (modeled closely after Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. and supreme Supreme Diana Ross) seem rather ordinary, but both rise to the occasion at crucial moments.
Foxx plays his character so close to the vest that his performance dangerously borders on non-acting much of the time, but he flashes deadly casual coldness when his business is threatened. And as Deena -- who, with her model's beauty, sleeker body, lighter skin, and more manageable (and malleable) personality, is tapped to usurp Effie as group leader despite (or, as we learn, perhaps partly because of) her weaker voice -- Beyoncé proves her weaker, more demure performance is indeed acting -- not reality -- by killing her anthemic showcase song late in the movie.
Ultimately, Dreamgirls comes across as something like Ray (R&B history, Jamie Foxx) meets Chicago (Broadway adaptation, Bill Condon), but it's better than either. Flaws and all, it's the best Hollywood musical in a long, long time.