Although the genre was once a staple of movie theater screens and continues to dominate Broadway stages, these days it seems that the people who make movies are more in love with the idea of musicals than the people who pay to see them. A-list directors such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, and James Brooks have tried (and failed) to revive the format, but by and large modern audiences rarely connect with films where the characters randomly burst into song, unless the picture is animated and most of the leads are talking animals. There are exceptions, naturally. Generally speaking, the musical bio-pic (Ray, Walk the Line, etc.) is considered immune from modern biases, so long as the characters are meant to be professional singers and all of the songs stem organically from their performances and rehearsals. For some inexplicable reason, the acid-trip insanity of Moulin Rouge! struck a chord with a segment of the population and became an unlikely hit. Then, a few years ago, the popular and awards success of Chicago looked to signal a resurgence of interest in bringing that old Broadway razzle dazzle back to the movies. Thus we now have Bill Condon's film version of Dreamgirls, a big-budget, all-star adaptation of the smash-hit Tony Award-winning play.
A thinly-fictionalized account of a 1960s Motown girl group suspiciously similar to The Supremes, Dreamgirls follows the aspirations to fame and fortune of The Dreamettes, later to be renamed The Dreams. Lead singer Effie White (American Idol runner-up Jennifer Hudson) is a force of nature with a powerhouse voice and diva mentality to match. Even at the group's humblest beginnings, Effie almost ruins their first big break because she doesn't want to settle for being backup to established act James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy). Nonetheless, she succumbs to the charms of huckster manager Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), and The Dreamettes play second fiddle as Early struggles to break out of the R&B ghetto and onto the mainstream pop charts. Eventually, Curtis recognizes the group's star potential and splits them off from Early, but only by pushing the chunky Effie to the background and bringing up less-talented but gorgeous Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) to the forefront as the girls' new TV-friendly lead singer. Effie of course doesn't take well to this slighting and has a diva breakdown that causes her to be ousted from The Dreams just as they hit the big time. Effie then spirals into obscurity and poverty, only to watch Deena achieve major crossover success and become a cultural icon.
As far as musicals go, Dreamgirls has an appealing Motown flavor and some truly rousing production numbers. Eddie Murphy has a lot of fun channeling James Brown, delivering what is perhaps his best and most entertaining on-screen performance to date. Newcomer Hudson can belt out a tune and isn't half bad as an actress (as her mantle full of shiny awards, including the coveted Oscar, will surely attest). Beyoncé doesn't quite break out as the Diana Ross-like Deena but is fine in the part. Foxx is quite good and Danny Glover fills a welcome supporting role. Condon's direction is slick and assured, sparing no expense on the terrific costumes, sets, and photography. His recreation of the 1970s in the film's second half is handled especially well, capturing the Soul Train glamour and Disco fabulousness as they were seen at the time – sleek, modern, and hip – not as we usually look back at them now through the filter of campy retro kitsch.
But something about the movie just never clicks. The rags-to-riches-to-rags storyline was frankly pretty rote even when the play premiered back in 1981. Other than Effie and Deena, the other Dreams are marginalized so much in the story that we hardly know their names. The show's songs all feel like Motown-lite, burdened with didactic lyrics and too much Broadway pap. We're told repeatedly that Deena isn't a very good singer, but she's played by Beyoncé, a huge pop star in real life, who makes no effort at all to sing deliberately badly or frankly much differently than what we usually hear from her – so what's that supposed to say? The film's musical numbers aren't always well integrated with the story. At first we're lead to believe that this will be a backstage type of musical where all the songs correspond to the group's performances, but then at other random moments the characters will break into unnatural song and dance, and it just feels wrong, like the movie can't decide what sort of musical it wants to be. The script also has an obnoxious tendency to correlate story points with real cultural events (Martin Luther King, the Watts riot, Vietnam) without earning that privilege with valid reasons. The movie is all flash and little substance.
Bill Condon had previously written the script for Chicago and also directed the highly-respected Gods & Monsters and Kinsey. With that pedigree, plus a sizable budget and this cast, Dreamgirls was anticipated as a blockbuster hit and Oscar frontrunner. It didn't quite live up to any of those expectations, bringing in decent but not huge box office and failing to secure the Best Picture nomination that the studio desired. Jennifer Hudson of course became the production's breakout star, and Eddie Murphy received a lot of praise (though no Oscar gold). The movie will probably do very well on home video, but simply isn't enough to resurrect the musical genre as its creators may have hoped.
The HD DVD:
Dreamgirls debuts on the HD DVD format as a 2-Disc Showstopper Edition courtesy of Dreamworks Home Entertainment (distributed by Paramount Home Entertainment). A comparable Blu-ray release is also available.
The first disc in the set automatically opens with a lengthy HD DVD promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance. The main menu screens of both discs play the movie's theme song repeatedly in an annoyingly short loop. If you should pause or fast-forward/rewind the movie during playback, a timeline meter will appear on screen to tell you how far along you are.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (unless the disc is a Combo release that specifically includes a secondary DVD version) or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Dreamgirls HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
The video transfer is, in a word, flawless. The picture is extremely sharp and detailed, with no edge enhancement artifacts and minimal film grain (accurately preserved when present). Colors are amazingly deep and vibrant. The inky black levels and rich contrast range lend a great sense of depth. No video noise or digital compression problems ever rear their ugly heads. This image has plenty of sparkle and pop, and makes for ideal home theater demo material. There is absolutely nothing at all to complain about or nit-pick here. At least in terms of video, Dreamgirls is truly fabulous.
The Dreamgirls HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format. A lossless Dolby TrueHD track might have been appreciated, but there's little to feel disappointed with here. The audio mix has terrific musical warmth and fidelity. Individual instruments in the score are frequently discernable. Stereo and surround separation is very immersive. Dialogue is always crisp and clean, and the ADR work rarely calls attention to itself. Musicals like this are especially demanding when it comes to accurate sound quality, and the HD DVD delivers nicely.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - French or Spanish DD+ 5.1.
The bonus features on this HD DVD title are duplicated from the DVD edition. All of the video supplements from the Showstopper Edition DVD have carried over, with many of them presented here in true High Definition video using MPEG4 AVC compression.
- Extended and Alternate Scenes (36 min., HD) – 11 of the song sequences from the film plus 1 deleted number are offered in extended format that preserves the performances in their entirety without any cutaways for dialogue or plot, all in HD video and 5.1 sound. Fans of the film will find this an ideal way to replay their favorite parts, though it must be said that a couple of the numbers feel like filler.
- Music Video (4 min., SD) – "Listen" by Beyoncé Knowles. The songstress makes it a point to highlight her best assets (both of them) on camera, but this is otherwise a dull song and video.
- Dreamgirls Soundtrack Promo (1 min., SD) – Literally just a commercial for the soundtrack CD. Useless.
The only thing missing from the DVD is a still gallery of costume sketches and production art.
- Building the Dream (1 hr. 55 min., HD) – An extremely thorough, feature-length documentary that covers every aspect of Dreamgirls from its Broadway origins to the film's development, script, casting, pre-production, choreography, songs, and shooting, all the way to its premiere night. If you have any interest at all in knowing more about how Dreamgirls was made, this should fit the bill nicely.
- Dream Logic: Film Editing (4 min., HD) – Editor Virginia Katz discusses the overwhelming task of crafting over a million feet of film into a coherent 2-hour movie. One 3-minute minute dance number alone required sorting through over 5 hours of footage.
- Dressing the Dream: Costume Design (8 min., HD) – Costume Designer Sharen Davis describes her influences and themes, and the difficult task of properly capturing the different eras that the story covers.
- Center Stage: Theatrical Lighting (9 min., HD) – Theatrical Lighting Designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer explain the difference between stage and movie lighting. They also attempt to demonstrate the thematic importance of lighting in eliciting emotions.
- Auditions and Screen Tests - Beyoncé sings the "Dreamgirls" theme (2 min., HD) and kind of sucks. Whether that was intentional because her character is supposed to be a weak singer or not is unclear (personally, I doubt it). Anika Noni Rose screeches her way through "Ain't No Party" (2 min., SD). Finally, choreographer Fatima Robinson stages an elaborate routine for "Steppin' to the Bad Side" (6 min., SD) that's actually more fun than anything that wound up in the movie.
- Previsualization Sequences (37 min., SD) – 7 scenes from the film are pre-planned with a mix of storyboards and rehearsal footage. I found it pretty dull, frankly. Your mileage may vary.
The Dreamgirls HD DVD has such outstanding picture and sound quality, as well as a quantity of excellent bonus features, that I would be remiss not to recommend it. Too bad the movie itself couldn't be a little better.
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