Dreamgirls was a smash hit on Broadway when it debuted in 1981, and it's likely going to be a smash hit in movie theatres twenty-five years later.
Loosely based on the story of Motown, Dreamgirls is a modern musical in so much as its style owes as much to the sound of Detroit as it does more classical stage productions. The scene opens during a talent show where all of the principal characters are gathered for one reason or another. James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy) has run off his back-up singers with his womanizing ways, and his manager, Marty Madison (Danny Glover), is having no luck getting anyone to fill-in for Jimmy's headlining slot after the contest. The Dreamettes, a trio of female singers, have shown up late and nearly missed their performance because Deena's disapproving mother wouldn't let the girl leave on time. Deena (Beyoncé Knowles) tries to fast-talk them into a new slot, but it's only with the intervention of Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx) that it happens. Curtis sells Cadillacs for a living, but he's looking to move into something more. Spotting an opportunity, he puts the Dreamettes (soon to be the Dreams) together with Jimmy Early, and before you know it, he's no longer selling cars but selling records on his own label, Rainbow.
Dreamgirls charts the rises, falls, and comebacks of these various characters. The Dreams eventually break from Jimmy Early, but not before dumping the powerhouse voice of Effie (former American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson) in favor of Deena, who Curtis believes will look better on "American Bandstand." A slick operator, Curtis is the agent of change in everyone's life, and not always to the good. Though Deena and the remaining Dreams, original member Lorell (Anika Noni Rose) and replacement Michelle (Sharon Leal), will reach the heights of fame, it's not everything they hoped it would be. The story was originally based on the Supremes, but in some ways it could have just as easily been about Beyoncé's former group, Destiny's Child. Hell, the replacement in Destiny's was even named Michelle!
Directed by Bill Condon (Kinsey, Gods and Monsters), Dreamgirls carries the audience through the swinging moods of its narrative. The first act is a raucous good time, capturing the blush of initial celebrity and the hunger for success. Taking place largely on the road during the Dreams' tour with Jimmy Early, Eddie Murphy makes this part of the movie his own. Jimmy is like a combination of Little Richard and James Brown, and Murphy fits into the singer's larger-than-life style perfectly, both on and off the stage. It's been a long time since Eddie Murphy has been this good, and it's great to have him back. He sings and dances with real fire, and later in the movie, when Jimmy morphs into Marvin Gaye and is struggling to get another hit, Murphy is just as strong in showing his dignity and self-belief slipping away. It's a bravura performance.
In fact, Eddie Murphy would be the clear winner in Dreamgirls if it wasn't for Hudson. What a debut! In the screening I attended, the audience spontaneously applauded twice during the show, each time at the end of one of Effie's big numbers. Though Beyoncé is the more well-known star and Deena finally provides her with an acting role that suits her, Effie was the real part to get in Dreamgirls. In the early portion of the story, she's the one with the most drive, who isn't going to take any guff from anyone, but her toxic relationship with Curtis eventually breaks her down. Once she is exiled from the Dreams, she is forced to confront what happened to her and the aspects of her own personality that are holding her back. Effie's songs convey her struggle and her triumph, and Hudson sings them with great force. She has a considerable voice and the talent to use it. The theatre rumbles with every emotional word she sings, and just as Effie deserves every good turn she gets in the movie, so will Hudson deserve all the raves that are coming her way.
In fact, Dreamgirls is ingeniously designed. Even though Effie stands apart as the breakout role, there are strong moments for all of the leads, avoiding the kind of diva antics that make up the movie's plot. Murphy gets several great songs, including a socially conscious number with Rose, and Beyoncé delivers a powerful performance for Deena's climactic scene, a recording session where she lays it all out for Curtis. The music is shown in two different formats, either as performances from the stage or in more traditional musical fashion as part of the dialogue. Often, it is both, as a song begins within the story, as an interaction between characters, and then moves over to being part of the Dreams or Jimmy's acts. Though he sings, only Foxx doesn't get a flashy number to tear into. He makes up for this by imbuing Curtis with a quiet greed that borders on real evil. For a comedian who has been known to be pretty outrageous, it's a subtle performance. He creates a villain who you really hate but who has enough hints of vulnerability that you'll feel sorry for him, too.
Dreamgirls does lag in the middle, but the lull ends up serving to give the audience a chance to catch their breath after the high-energy first third and prepare for the dramatic final act. From there, it's a straight shot to the finale, when the Dreams get to bring the house down. As with any good musical, you'll still be tapping your feet and humming the tunes when you exit. What with Broadway mining Hollywood productions these days to find stories to adapt to the stage, it's nice to see the relationship working the other way again.
There's still life in the movie musical--so much so, it's time we even stop questioning whether the genre can ever fully come back. It has.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.