Bringing very successful Broadway musicals to the big screen is notoriously difficult. It is often easy to lose the power and intimacy created on a stage when a story is magnified to fit the bigger than life proportions of a Hollywood film.
Director Bill Condon (Kinsey) also wrote the Dreamgirls screenplay (he won an Oscar back in 2004 for penning Chicago), which was based on the book by Tom Eyen. Dreamgirls, the thinly veiled story of Motown and its most successful girl group, The Supremes, was a smash hit when it debuted on Broadway in 1981. For twenty-five years some of Hollywood’s biggest players, including David Geffen, tried to get a film version made but weren’t able to see it through.
Bill Condon was an excellent choice to helm such a complex story. Dreamgirls is the story of three African-American girls from Detroit with dreams of being singing stars in the early to mid-sixties. As the film opens, the three girls, Deena (Beyoncé Knowles), Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose), and Effie (Jennifer Hudson), known as the Dreamettes, intend to win a talent show using a routine cooked up by Effie’s brother C.C. (Keith Robinson) in hopes of a big break. Unbeknownst to them, the show is rigged against them. After the show a Cadillac salesman named Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) who yearns to be a music industry insider realizes that the Dreamettes would be a perfect backup group for R&B star James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy). Suddenly everyone’s dreams are falling into place.
Set throughout the turbulent sixties and early seventies, it quickly becomes clear that talent isn’t all it takes to become a star. Payola must be used to get the Dreamettes' records on the radio and most cruelly of all, Effie, the girl with the gigantic voice, is moved to back-up singer in favor of the visually stunning Deena.
The casting of Dreamgirls is simply superb. Beyoncé Knowles plays Deena with the burning ambition that Deena obviously has to succeed but she also gives her a sense of frustration that crackles below the surface through much of the film, blazing forth as she sings the song “Listen.” It is then that we are sure that she has found her own voice and the confidence to break away from Curtis Taylor Jr.
Jennifer Hudson simply became Effie. That’s saying a lot since Effie is the role that made the great Jennifer Holliday a star on Broadway. When I first went to see Dreamgirls in a movie theater I remember thinking, “Well, nobody can sing that part as good as Jennifer Holiday but maybe she wont be terrible.” Suffice to say, when Ms. Hudson sang “And I’m Telling You, I’m Not Going” the audience, myself included, was mesmerized. When the song was over, most of the audience applauded as if we were watching a live performance.
Eddie Murphy gives the finest performance of his career as James “Thunder” Early. Early represents countless black entertainers during the sixties who weren’t able to gain ‘superstar’ status because of the racial divides that existed in America at the time. He represents the musician who came before, making the success of artists like Otis Redding and James Brown possible.
Murphy gives Jimmy a real sense of vulnerability. We understand that he is not the confident man many think he is. He is indeed "fakin' his way to the top." Murphy’s performance was worthy of an Academy Award. Murphy sings and daces his way through the film but as time progresses, his body shows his slow disintegration as he loses his grip on everything he loves.
Watching Dreamgirls on DVD made me appreciate the film even more. While Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy received much acclaim for their performances, Beyoncé Knowles deserves kudos for her portrayal of Deena Jones. While Jennifer Hudson’s Effie chews up scenery with a fiery intensity in the forefront of much of the story, it is Knowles' character Deena who is pulling all the strings and doing whatever she has to do to make the Dreams as successful as possible.
Bill Condon successfully mixed numerous on-stage musical numbers with plenty of offstage material to set up the backstory. Condon makes you care what happens to each of the characters, even in those moments when you might not like them very much.
The DVD is a very clear widescreen transfer. Since Dreamgirls is a musical, it is essential that the sound be a crisp. The English audio is available in both 5.1 and 2.0. There is also a 5.1 mix in French, and English and Spanish subtitles.
The Dreamgirls (Two Disc Showstopper Edition) is bursting with extras and is a must-have for any fan of the film. The extras on disc one are all about the music from the movie. In addition to the promotional music video for the Beyoncé track "Listen" (a combination of a Beyoncé lip-sync and movie footage which I would call a trailer), there are 11 extended versions of performances from the movie and what is billed as an unreleased song by Jennifer Hudson. The unreleased track is "Effie, Sing My Song," and it's actually a short duet between Hudson and Keith Robinson when C.C. reunites with Effie and convinces her to record "One Night Only."
DVD 2 is all supplemental material chronicling the behind-the-scenes development of the Dreamgirls adaptation. Building the Dream is a full-length documentary (it runs nearly two hours). The story begins on Broadway, explaining the start of the stage version and moving into Bill Condon's involvement with the film right up to the premiere. Building the Dream also shows some of the cast auditions. Beyoncé performs "Dreamgirls" solo with piano accompaniment for her audition, Anika Noni Rose sings "Ain't No Party," also accompanied by piano.
Other features include “Dream Logic: Film Editing,” “Dressing the Dreams: Costume,” and “Center Stage: Theatrical Lighting.” All of these special features definitely provide something for everyone, and provide the viewer a backstage look at a special film.
Since I’ve watched Dreamgirls Two-Disc Showstopper Edition, I’ve been listening to The Supremes: The Ultimate Collection and wondering what Diana Ross thinks of the movie. What would Florence Ballard think? While these may be interesting thoughts to ponder, Dreamgirls stands as one of the finest movie musicals I’ve ever seen.