To say that Dreamgirls is a fictionalized account of Diana Ross and The Supremes is misleading. Rather, the narrative structure follows the climb to dominance of Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), the Berry Gordy, Jr.-like macher who repackages black musical performers for a broader market.
Curtis's story is, like Citizen Kane (1941), a romance of temptation in which the Faustian protagonist's own ambition is his Mephistopheles. And like Kane's, Curtis's perdition comes disguised as unparalleled success. His record company, based on Gordy's Motown, and his L.A. mansion are the boundaries of his lonely hell on earth (one so emotionally parched that even his Persephone takes off for good). As in soap opera, the fact that it's a deluxe hell, with set and costume design meant to stimulate the audience's materialist salivary glands, is ignored.
When the movie starts, Curtis is a used car salesman who hangs around backstage at a local Detroit theater hoping to break in as an artists' manager. Having seen too many black composers robbed of royalties, and too many R&B scorchers turned into bland pop hits in covers by white groups, Curtis liquidates his inventory and invests the proceeds in a label run by and for African-Americans. His goal is laudable, but he achieves his dream by turning it into something achievable.
The first bad news is that success in the music business requires Curtis to engage in the corrupt practices of the era: he converts cars into payola and he's on his way. In addition, Curtis is totally focused on doing what it takes to get big money. His best shot, as he sees it, is to groom his acts so that their original versions can cross over from the R&B audience to the pop audience. He reshapes a girl group called The Dreamettes, led by Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), a raucous, ample-figured, soulful R&B singer, by moving the traditionally winsome Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) into the lead spot. The more cosmetically appealing trio, rechristened The Dreams, blasts to the top of the more lucrative pop charts, i.e., the ones that track sales to white teens.
Curtis later tells Deena, then his disgruntled wife and star act, that he put her up front because she had a less characterful voice than Effie — it was all about an image he could manipulate. (Such roman-à-clef cattiness is on a par with having Citizen Kane discover an empty liquor bottle in the deserted room of Susan Alexander – i.e., Marion Davies – and is likewise easy to believe.) This also means that Curtis doesn't wait for white artists to tone "his" songs down — he does it himself and reaps the unprecedented benefits, which is also to say that he wins the war by capitulating before it starts. In addition — and this is where the story gets conventional, in its own bland, crossover way — the narrative emphasizes that Curtis does what he has to do to succeed, no matter whom he has to use, hurt, or destroy.
Curtis's temptation romance is the storyline that holds all the others together, and he is the instigator all the other characters react to, but he's not the central character. (And once again, as in Ray (2004), Foxx suggests a fine performance without being given the material to realize it.) Moreover, nobody else is the central character, either. Everybody else has his or her quest and temptation, and the movie turns into a melodrama in which all parties purify themselves by rejecting Curtis and succeeding without him, or, in one case, by dying.
Not surprisingly, the most entertaining characters surrounding Curtis are the self-destructive ones. Eddie Murphy plays James "Thunder" Early, a soul wailer modeled after James Brown (with dabs of Marvin Gaye), as a great intuitive pop artist who thinks of his creative work as a non-stop party in a traveling bordello. Jimmy doesn't need to take his music seriously in order for it to be fully achieved; in fact, not taking it seriously is part of what completes it. He embodies all our favorite lower impulses in the tremblingly responsive flesh, his voice the call of the urban wild. But Jimmy takes casualness to the point of prodigality, and is too burned out to fight Curtis when he decides he does want to be taken seriously. By the time the man disappears, the artist has already gone ahead.
With his sketch comedy skills Murphy mimics the snake-hipped, sex-and-blues raptures of countless black male singers. The real felicity of the casting, however, is that the edge of parody Murphy brings to the numbers make them more, rather than less, intense because his style of comedy merges with the deeper comic sense that Jimmy expresses in his music: the sheer carnal wonder of being alive.
It can't all be glad tidings; Jimmy exudes too much raw, ornery power for that. The high point of the movie comes when Curtis brings his troupe to Miami where he has formed tentative connections with a hotel nightclub owner who thinks his patrons will be uncomfortable watching black performers in such an intimate setting. Curtis has warned the performers to play it down, but Jimmy just can't help himself and goes all "black" on the audience in a way that harms Curtis the dealmaker and also displays contempt, whether consciously or not, for Curtis's deracinating business plan. As an actor, Murphy has the advantage of his age and expertly uses the map of experience incised on his comedian's happy face. We may presume that Murphy has learned from his own unruly life's record, but as Jimmy he shows what experience teaches even those who can't profit from its lessons.
The female skyrocket is Effie, who is dating Curtis at the time he replaces her with Deena (who also moves into his bed). Early on, as this confident, ambitious, headstrong teen, Hudson sings the knock-off numbers in the manner of Etta James's up-tempo tunes (e.g., "Something's Got a Hold on Me," "Pushover") in which her voice is so round it rolls. And Hudson wags her dialogue with some of Bessie Smith's earthy sass. During Effie's initial ascent, Hudson steals every scene she's in, onstage and off.
Then, as Curtis edges Effie out of the spotlight, Hudson is reduced to a self-pitying sullenness and rage that undermines everything that was so appealing about the tough young bundle of a womanish girl. Worse is the fact that Effie doesn't die broke at the age of 32 as did Florence Ballard, the member of The Supremes that Effie correlates to, but makes a long, drawn-out trudge back to self-respect — and the fame and fortune that it invariably leads to as we all know from our own lives. Effie's rise and fall and rise are exaggerated and yet drably predictable, just as they would be in the soaps. When you also consider that the script suggests Curtis causes Jimmy to O.D. (not intentionally, but by severing their contract), the movie starts to seem like a clearinghouse of sentimental dramaturgy.
Effie's scenes might have been enjoyable with more flamboyance even without more truth, although Hudson probably is not yet up to the demands of higher theatrical style. She doesn't, for instance, have the technique to age Effie over the movie's 15-or-so-year time span. She gets more petulant but doesn't seem toughened or deadened, not on the inside certainly, and as a result she actually appears increasingly baby-faced. Until she's reborn as Roberta Flack, that is.
Of course, the entire audience enters the theater waiting for Hudson's version of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," made famous by Jennifer Holliday in the original Broadway production. This number is rousing but tries so hard to be a non-stop gusher that it becomes monotonous. Yes, it's a feat to pull it off, but its appeal is basically trashy, a Broadway belter's dream of a masochistic show-stopper, something Judy Garland could have wrung out at Carnegie Hall if she'd grown up singing in a gospel choir. The song is all climax and Holliday puts it over by main force — screaming, belching, stomping, woo-wooing, gasping. The only way to top Holliday would be for the actress to die onstage after the last note.
Holliday has the advantage of being more womanly than Hudson, but there's also the problem of Hudson's voice, which flattens out as she repeatedly attempts to outdo her previous paroxysm. She simply doesn't have the repertoire of skills — you could say tricks — that Holliday commands. A singer could have a lot worse voice than Hudson's — Janis Joplin's, for instance — and give a more expressive rendition. (The dramatic tact necessary to make a song build, the gift Barbra Streisand had in abundance, is currently out of fashion, so Céline Dion, squalling verse after verse after verse, as if she were trying to ring a fairground bell using her uvula as the sledgehammer, now passes for a diva.) In addition, Effie's big solo comes after a truly bad group recitative in which the characters either say what we already know or something that hasn't been prepared for at all, and the fun is over. The movie is nothing but soap opera from this point on.
Still, the phoniest aspect of the show is making Deena a nice girl who not only has no intention of hurting Effie, but who begs Curtis not to make her the lead singer instead of her chubby friend (an approach at least as hoary as Donizetti's 1830 Anna Bolena, in which Jane Seymour implores Henry VIII not to cast off Anne Boleyn to marry her). I'm sorry, are we talking about the Diana Ross here? It's safe to say that no one who didn't want to be the group's lead singer and eventually a solo superstar would get where Miss Deena Jones gets in Dreamgirls. There is a potentially interesting irony in the fact that Effie, who possesses not only a more exciting voice but what we assume is a survivor's impudence as well, is the one who breaks down, while the more fragile Deena scales new heights for a black pop singer. The moviemakers are not interested in irony, however, and they leave it completely undeveloped.
But if the purveyors of such material won't supply the irony, we just have to bring it ourselves. Deena is innocent of all ambition, and it not only isn't believable, it makes her seem downright insipid, a quality that Beyoncé does not need any help with as an actress. She lacked the growl-and-prowl necessary for the blaxploitation mama in Goldmember (2002), and here she's not so much as asked for anything like the uncontainable narcissistic exuberance that made Ross such a hot-footed glamazon.
As things go downhill with Curtis's management of Deena's career, Beyoncé ends up simpering, and the older and more experienced Deena is supposed to be, the more noticeable Beyoncé's "niceness" becomes. (Her voice makes her as girlish as the white ingénues in Hollywood movies of the '40s and '50s; compared to Beyoncé, breathy, seducible Doris Day sounds like a phone-sex siren.) And, like Hudson, Beyoncé doesn't seem to age, but just takes on a weird, fashion-doll stiffness. The Deena subplot, in fact, starts to resemble Diana Ross's Mahogany (1975, directed by Gordy, costumes by Ross) — the agony of beauty, talent, love, fame, and fortune, with a thousand outfit changes — minus the relief valve of unintentional camp which is all that makes Mahogany watchable.
The third member of The Dreams, Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose), has much less material than Effie and Deena. Hers is the classic sudser role of a married man's other woman, and she seems to be included not because historically there were always three members of The Supremes but because there have always been three girls in compare-and-contrast movies like Sally, Irene, and Mary (1925), Three on a Match (1932), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), A Letter to Three Wives (1949), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Les Girls (1957), Valley of the Dolls (1967), and Sparkle (1976), the most on-point precursor). Finally, Danny Glover as Marty Madison, Jimmy's first manager from whom Curtis romances him, and who later represents Effie in her comeback, shows up periodically to presage what everybody else will feel about Curtis by the end of the movie.
There are just too many cornball storylines for the simplistic romance/melodrama structure. All these trajectories — the struggles, triumphs, and set-backs — might have been coordinated if the movie had been conceived of as the assimilation epic of African-American pop artistry and entrepreneurship. Adapting the Broadway hit, however, writer-director Bill Condon simply hasn't thought that big (or perhaps wasn't free to), and what he presents is too disorganized, even on its own terms. The ending, a last reunion of The Dreams that coincides with several other realizations and reconciliations, is so blatant and clumsy that you could lose all respect for the director though you'd loved everything that came before, which I certainly did not.
The major problem with the movie version of Dreamgirls isn't the music, it's the dramatic structure. Can the music save it? While The Dreams are on their way up I would say yes. The movie opens at an amateur night contest in which some faked R&B numbers in a range of styles rock the house. It's also a plus that in the rising action the performers mostly sing onstage rather than just bursting into song. Crisply choreographed by Fatima Robinson, these numbers make you feel like you're burning calories just by sitting and watching. The burst-into-song numbers to come are all duds, and the ersatz singer-songwriter and disco numbers of the '70s aren't as enjoyable as the earlier material. It's possible that even if the later songs were good, the accretion of stale dramatic ideas would have overwhelmed them. Yet as painful as the movie had become by the end, I could have happily sat through the first half a second time, though I was barely able to sit through the second half once.