Three nervous girls step out onto a stage. They've rehearsed, they've done their make-up and their hair, and they've picked out special dresses for the occasion. This is the moment they've been waiting for, when the whole world will finally hear them sing.
Only it's not that easy. It never is. If it were, we'd all be famous. It's going to take something more.
Dreamgirls is the story of that something more. The three girls are Deena (Beyoncé Knowles), Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose), and Effie (Jennifer Hudson), a singing group from Detroit called the Dreamettes. They entered a talent show and fully expect to win by performing a routine worked out by Effie's brother, C.C. (Keith Robinson). When that doesn't happen (it was all rigged, don'cha know?), another opportunity comes their way. A Cadillac salesman by the name of Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx) has also been waiting to fulfill his own dream of breaking into the music industry. Having heard that famed R&B singer James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy) has chased off his back-up singers with his womanizing ways just before that night's performance, Curtis puts two and two together, and everyone's needs are suddenly fulfilled.
Set against the turbulent political backdrop of the late-1960s/early-1970s, the rest of Dreamgirls tracks the undulating paths of fame and success for all of these people, as Curtis builds his own record label, propels the newly named Dreams to stardom, and then proceeds to alienate everyone around him as the business side of show business takes over his ambitions. At the center of the storm is the relationship between Deena and Effie. Effie starts off as the lead vocalist in the Dreams, but Curtis moves Deena into pole position. In classic A Star is Born tradition, fortunes change. The background player steps to the foreground, and everyone has a price to pay.
Dreamgirls was adapted to the screen by writer/director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey). A thinly veiled portrayal of Motown and its lead girl group, the Supremes, the original stage production opened on Broadway in 1981 and caused a sensation, making a star out of Jennifer Holliday, the actress who played Effie. In the intervening 25 years, various incarnations of the project have been slated to go before cameras, but they never got off the ground. Given the magic that Condon conjured in the casting, it would seem it was meant to be. When the film was released this past December, it created a sensation all over again. It also made another star out of its new Effie: Jennifer Hudson went on to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
She deserved it, too. Effie is no easy character. She has to be both gutsy and fragile, and when she's the former, the audience has to still feel the latter. Hudson shows that both elements go hand in hand, that they come from the same well of courage. She is also an incredible vocalist. The tent pole of Dreamgirls is the long, emotional song "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." It's a bravura solo number that comes right in the middle of the movie, ending what is essentially the first of two acts. The lyrics demand resistance, fear, anger, heartbreak, and desperation, and the singer has to climb steadily towards the song's crescendo. When it's done right, audiences should have goosebumps as they stand and cheer. Jennifer Hudson does it right.
The other knockout performance that had everyone talking when the movie came out was Eddie Murphy's. It's the sort of kick-ass comeback that Murphy fans have been waiting for years to see him do. Jimmy Early is an amalgamation of a variety of soul singers like Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye. Murphy is perfect for the performance parts, dancing and singing up a frenzy and swaggering with the bravado of a superstar. He is also incredible, though, in the more emotional scenes, when Jimmy is losing his grip. The pain on his face after Curtis turns down what he thinks is a bold new direction for his career may be Murphy's single best dramatic moment in any movie, and he need not say a word. It's Christmas Eve, and he may as well be at the North Pole, he is so desolate and alone. Murphy should have won the Oscar, too. Just being nominated wasn't enough. (I love Alan Arkin, but it really should have been Eddie's year.)
Revisiting Dreamgirls on DVD, I have to say the one performance that I don't think has gotten enough credit is Beyoncé's. Keep your eye on her in the early scenes. She's the driving force of the Dreamettes. For all of Effie's moxie, it's really Deena that is pushing the group. Knowles hangs back, though, looking like a background player when she's really pulling the strings. Her character is all the more tragic when you realize that it's neither naked ambition nor betrayal that gets her ahead, it's her complicity. She decides to play the game, and it costs her. Curtis makes her a star, but he bleeds her of all of her personality. Condon made a smart choice when he had a new song, "Listen," written for Deena, allowing Beyoncé to snatch the character's dignity back. The change is there in the vocal performance, but also in her physical presence. Deena has stood tall all along, but after "Listen," she can finally relax and be human.
This is the dark side of being a dreamer. In the finale, when the women give their farewell performance of the title song, it's not the triumph of a big finish. The battle they've won isn't one that inspires a victory lap. Rather, that second performance of "Dreamgirls" has a slightly somber tone, signifying the Dreams accepting responsibility for their own fate. This time, when they say they are our dream girls, what they are really saying is, "Here we are, warts and all, because every dream comes with a struggle."
The movie itself may have also been a struggle to get to the multiplex, but Bill Condon makes the most of it. Dreamgirls has style and verve to spare. The direction takes the story from the stage and translates every nuance to film language, and yet the filmmakers still manage to pay tribute to the story's roots. Given that a healthy portion of the musical numbers are meant to be songs the characters perform as live acts, much of the action is still set in music halls and theatres. Condon plays with this, moving from the backstage to the front, and paying tribute to both the musical tradition the original material drew from and the new tradition the stage production established. (He even has one of the original dreams, Loretta Devine, make a cameo.) Somehow, this means he manages to get both the staginess of a musical and keep it moving like any other non-singing film. Dreamgirls is a meticulously designed show from top to bottom. Every set, every costume, every background detail, every note--Condon places each detail precisely. Yet, Dreamgirls maintains the spontaneity and freshness of an authentic crowd pleaser.
Just see if you don't give the movie a standing ovation in the privacy of your own living room. And even if you resist the temptation, that doesn't mean it's not there.
A sparkling widescreen transfer keeps every flash of glitter intact for Dreamgirls' move from the movie screen to your TV. It's a gorgeous looking DVD. There's not a mark on the picture.
Dreamgirls would be nothing on DVD without a good sound mix, and the English audio is offered in both 5.1 and 2.0. A lot of care went into keeping the music sounding rich and full so that viewers can get swept away in the songs.
There is also a 5.1 mix in French, and English and Spanish subtitles.
The 2-Disc "Showstopper Edition" of Dreamgirls leaves no stone unturned in the bonus feature department. Fans of the movie should have few questions remaining after they've combed through the hours of supplemental material, and the cautious should rest easy that there should be no need for a future double-dip; everything you need for this blockbuster is right here. Well, except maybe a karaoke sing-a-long and a Dance Dance Revolution game where you can be Jimmy Early.
DVD 1's extras are all about the music. In addition to the promotional music video for the Beyoncé track "Listen" (a combination of a Beyoncé lip-sync and movie footage), there are 11 extended versions of performances from the movie and what is billed as an unreleased song by Jennifer Hudson. Essentially, the extended takes are the full performances without any other action cut into them (or, at the very least, much less action cut into them). So, for instance, the Step Sisters number at the talent show and the various TV show appearances of the Dreams play uninterrupted in their entirety without ever going backstage or over to other story elements, and bigger production sequences like "Steppin' to the Bad Side" cut short for time are included in full. The unreleased track is "Effie, Sing My Song," and it's actually a short duet between Hudson and Keith Robinson when C.C. reunites with his sister and persuades her to record "One Night Only." In the final cut, this was done as dialogue instead. The performance here lasts a mere 1 minute and 20 seconds, so it doesn't really amount to much. In all, though, these musical sequences, including "Listen," run about 40 minutes.
The first disc also has a section for previews of other Dreamworks releases, though it's not a menu where you can pick which ones you want to see, but rather a string of them. These also play before the main menu, and include the new Shrek and Norbit.
DVD 2 is all supplemental features chronicling the behind-the-scenes development of the Dreamgirls adaptation. The lead feature is Building the Dream a full-length documentary (it runs nearly two hours). Naturally, it begins on Broadway, detailing the start of the stage version and explaining its legacy, and then quickly shifting gears into Bill Condon's involvement with the property and leading us up through the premiere of the movie. It's broken down into nine smaller segments, and you can watch any one of them on their own or play the whole thing straight through. Building the Dream doesn't break any new ground as far as making-of documentaries are concerned, and naturally everything went well and everyone was amazing and got along, but the program does go deep. It cuts in production art, auditions, set construction and model building, time in the recording studio (including Foxx and Murphy cutting up), and rehearsal/on-set footage with interviews from just about everyone involved with the production.
Some of that behind-the-scenes footage shown in Building the Dream is also presented uncut on DVD 2. Beyoncé performs "Dreamgirls" solo with piano accompaniment for her audition, Anika Noni Rose sings "Ain't No Party" in the same fashion, and we get a peek at the choreography session for "Steppin' to the Bad Side."
Individual featurettes include more focused looks at particular technical aspects of Dreamgirls. Dream Logic: Film Editing (4:00) shows the complex process it took to cull the massive amount of footage (one two-and-a-half-minute song had five hours of different takes, for instance) into a two-hour-and-ten-minute movie; Dressing the Dreams: Costume (8:15) uses a montage of scenes juxtaposed with the costume sketches, with the designer explaining her choices in voiceover, to showcase the costumer's art; Center Stage: Theatrical Lighting (8:40) talks about the variety of settings the movie has and the challenges of lighting each, particularly making the song performances look like they are happening in live venues on various rungs of the entertainment ladder.
Seven previsualization sequences show color storyboards and rehearsal footage edited together as a guide for the production crew as preparation for how each scene would be done. These include early recordings of the music and vocal stand-ins reading the dialogue. They are kind of fascinating, and illuminate further how much planning went into this ambitious motion picture. Along with these, we get four separate image galleries featuring full storyboards for ten scenes, costume designs, production designs, and pieces from the art department's archives, including the various poster and album mock-ups used as set dressing and the logos and things for signs and other props on some of the sets. All of the artwork is really quite lovely and definitely worth a slow scroll through.
DVD Talk Collector Series. This 2-disc release of Dreamgirls is exactly what DVD fans want for their favorite movies: a beautiful transfer, a well-done sound mix, and extras that give us a greater understanding of how the film was put together. Of course, all of that would just be empty glitz if the movie wasn't worth the treatment, and if any blockbuster from recent years was worth rolling out the red carpet for, Dreamgirls is it. The story is a rollercoaster ride of emotion, with outstanding musical numbers and phenomenal performances from an all-star cast. Bill Condon has succeeded in adapting a musical that most of the genre's fans had given up hope of ever seeing on the screen. He meets their expectations with aplomb. Bravo, one and all!
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joëlle 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 project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.