Dreamgirls is a film that is seductive in its production design, mesmerizing in its movements, yet not quite as enthralling as I was hoping it would be. That is not to say that it is not a good film – it most certainly is – but it tiptoes around being an excellent film without ever taking that final step. I feel that there really is one reason the story is as intriguing as it is. That reason has a name — Jennifer Hudson. More on that later.
I am not familiar with the musical that this is based on, nor am I well versed in the events that inspired the story, which I believe to be Diana Ross, the Supremes, and the dawn of Motown Records. That said, all I really have to go on is the film proper, and the film is quite an entertaining work. Yet there are things that do not completely work for me.
The story concerns the rise of a trio of singers, led by Effie White (Jennifer Hudson). When we first meet them, they are trying to win a talent contest, where they truly impress, but ultimately fail to win over the judges. This loss leads them directly to Curtis Taylor, Jr., a car salesman and promoter looking for his own break. He signs the girls to sing behind Jimmy "Thunder" Early. This proves to be the break they are looking for.
As Curtis manages their burgeoning career, it is Deena Jones (Beyonce), and not Effie, who is being turned into a star. At one point she is referred to as a product, a comparison that Curtis rather likes. I thought this was a telling line, as this was set before the commoditization of the pop star, but can be seen to be foreshadowing the future.
The movie traces their career from those early days as backup singers through their climbing glory days, to the troubled times, only to build back to triumph. It's pretty easy to foresee where the story is going. Considering the surface simplicity of the story, the bulk of the film has to rest on the art direction, production design, the heart of the performances, and, of course, the strength of the musical numbers.
I am going to be straight with you, I did not care for the elements that made this a musical, as opposed to a film with music (like Ray and Walk the Line). The movie has a great deal of dialogue, such that when these moments of song broke out, they felt out of place and unnatural. To my eyes, there was a distinct lack of flow when these moments occurred — the one exception being that showstopping number from Effie around the hour mark. I would have much preferred that the story have been all told in dialogue, leaving these musical elements at the door. My other, much slighter, annoyance is the spinning camera onstage. How often do we need to see someone singing on an empty stage only to have the camera swirl around them to reveal a full house? The device was used way too much.
Dreamgirls is an entertaining movie, that much is certain, but it would be nothing without the performance of Jennifer Hudson. Her voice is absolutely amazing, but more than that, she carries the full emotional weight of the story. She embodies the hopes and the dreams, the crushed future and the triumphant spirit that carries on. This, mind you, coming from someone who has a great dislike for all things American Idol. If that is what allowed her to find her way to the auditions for this film, perhaps it does some good after all. She gives a powerhouse performance that outshines everyone else on the screen. Do not take this lightly, without her fantastic work, this movie would not be nearly as good as it is.
Jennifer Hudson may be the heart and soul of Dreamgirls, but she is not the only one turning in first rate work. There is Eddie Murphy, who was a complete surprise to this viewer. At first, he just seemed to be a cocky character, there to serve a purpose to further the story and move on. He was that, but he was also much more. He goes through a strong character arc that has more impact than i was expecting. Murphy turned it up a few notches in the second half and left a memorable mark on the film.