Dreamgirls

Slowly but surely they are bringing the musical back. Every couple of years, they make one. It pokes its nose out of its hole like a groundhog on February 2 just to see if the public’s ready to sing again. The results have been mixed. Chicago was a big hit. Phantom tanked and Rent was a disappointment at the box office.

Dreamgirls looks like a success, a triumph even. For one thing, the producers were lucky in that there were enough African American stars who could sing dance and act and who were big enough to open a movie. Watching Eddie Murphy light up the screen with his tremendous charisma while singing on key is a revelation. This is what it’s about; this is why people like musicals. Not everybody can master those two very different skills.

I have to admit that I’m not familiar with the Broadway show Dreamgirls is based on. I gather that it is a fictionalized history of the Supremes. There are three friends who’ve been singing together since they were kids. They get their big break singing backup for James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy) a James Brown type singer. When it comes time for them to go out on their own, agent and ambitious record Mogul Curtis Taylor Jr., (think Barry Gordy) played by Jamie Foxx wants the prettiest one, Deena Jones, played by Beyonce, to sing the leads and be the face of the group. This displaces Effie White, played by Jennifer Hudson, who has a better voice but isn’t as pretty.

This film is not pure entertainment. It brings up issues from the early days of R&B. When James Early records a song written by Effie’s brother C.C., played by Keith Robinson, a white folk singer records a really lame version of it and it becomes a hit. C.C. gets neither credit nor royalties. This happened all the time in those early days. Curtis Taylor decides to play the game like the big boys do, which in those days meant payola. He makes James Early a star and then spins the three girls off into their own act, which is polished and smooth so that it has crossover appeal. The girls become huge.

This is all done in grand style. The sets and the costumes are fabulous. The acting and singing is terrific. Beyonce looks almost exactly like Diana Ross and Eddie Murphy shines probably because he doesn’t try to channel James Brown. But the real revelation here is Jennifer Hudson. This girl can sing. At the end she’s doing Aretha Franklin and she’s holding her own. Wow.

There are some problems. For the first third of the movie all the music is on stage, so you think that this will be like Cabaret, a regular movie where all the music is presented in a venue in which you generally find music in real life. But then Dreamgirls throws you a curve and the characters start singing off stage It pulled me out of the story.

The music is definitely showtunes filtered through Motown rather than the other way around. Even the first songs, which are supposed to recall the early days of “race” music, raw and percussive, are way too slick. But that’s OK. There are a few dull numbers, but overall the music is great.

In the end that is what will bring the musical all the way back–great music.

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