Bill Condon certainly seems to like giving people the old razzle-dazzle. His latest directorial effort (for which he also penned the screenplay), Dreamgirls, hits store shelves this week in a two-disc “Showstopper” edition. Condon also wrote the screenplay for the Academy Award winning Chicago, and there are certainly more than a few similarities between these two musicals. There is also a reason that Chicago went home from the Oscars with a Best Picture win and Dreamgirls did not.
The story follows the rise and fall of a group known originally as the Dreamettes and later as the Dreams. After being discovered by Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), the girls, Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles), Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose), are brought on a musical tour as backup singers. Eventually they are brought out into the spotlight as Taylor realizes that the girls have the potential to be the first African American singing group to cross over and become popular among a white audience. The catch to his whole plan is that he wants Deena to become the lead singer rather than Effie. This causes huge internal conflicts within the group and forever alters their direction.
It’s an old tale, based on a true story (or not, depending on whom you listen to), and it is abundantly clear from the first moment where everything is headed. The ride however, is an enjoyable one.
The music in Dreamgirls is fantastic and the movie is full of strong performances, but the movie as a whole is oddly structured, outside of the thin plot-line. Condon is still able to make the two-hour plus movie work through his sleight of hand, through razzle-dazzle, but it simply is not enough to make this a great film.
It is fully 45 minutes into this film before the first song occurs that isn’t a stage number or the playing of a record. To introduce characters as singing to each other at that late point in a film throws the whole movie off kilter. To this point, Dreamgirls has been building a story about the starting of a musical group and a record label, and all the songs were organic to the film itself. When Jennifer Hudson starts singing to her manager and the rest of her group nearly halfway into the movie it’s not even a full song, it’s just a few lines. The moment is completely unexpected, and not in a beneficial way. All the other dialog has been spoken, not sung, and now, when Hudson’s Effie White is hurt, shocked, and humiliated by her friends, she starts singing in a way no one has heretofore done in the film. Has she had a psychotic break? Is she dreaming? What has caused this huge turn in the film? As it turns out, the answer simply is that this is a musical and characters sing. It’s an odd turn of events and doesn’t work.
Even so, the movie does provide enough shimmer, enough glitz, and enough good music (on stage, not off) that it is unquestionably fun to sit down and watch. With strong performances by Jennifer Hudson, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover, Jamie Foxx, and others, there is little doubt as to why it was nominated for so many acting awards. I must state though, as has been stated elsewhere, that Jennifer Hudson’s role was not really a supporting one as much as a lead. That she would have had a more difficult time winning lead actress awards is more than likely the reason she was only submitted for supporting awards.
The two-disc “Showstopper” edition features a dozen extended and “never before seen” musical numbers, a Beyoncé music video, a full-length documentary on the making of the film, as well as screen tests, auditions, and other enticements. To a point, they are fun to watch in order to see what goes in, at least partially, to making a film of this caliber.
Available in HD-DVD, Blu-ray, and the plain old vanilla standard DVD, Dreamgirls is a brisk, breezy, 130 minutes where, even if very little happens, the performances and on-stage singing are able to carry it through.