"Dreamgirls" is a supernova musical that demands nothing less than to be adored. This new film adaptation of the 1981 Broadway blockbuster certainly has the demand part right, but lacks a sufficient argument why it should be venerated. The big screen version is a deafening muddle, pulled apart by booming vocal power, melodramatic performances, and zips through time faster than Doc Brown's De Lorean.
It seems sacrilege to even consider frowning during this motion picture, but writer/director Bill Condon makes it easy to lose the faith. Somewhere in his translation he's lost the heart and soul of "Dreamgirls," placing emphasis instead on the robotic machinations of the plot rather than the wounded emotions and double-crossing that defined its sinful pleasures on the stage.
Perhaps Condon was too wrapped up in the technicality of it all. Perfectly executed production values and great effort bring out the splendor of the musical numbers; "Dreamgirls" could never be criticized for skimping on details. It's a candied, lovely recreation of the Motown era, with Condon pulling out all the glittery stops to amp up the pageantry of the music and the stage dynamism from the performers. Especially in the first hour, "Dreamgirls" is a tech marvel: cameras swoop in and out, and colors pop off the screen and dance in front of your eyes.
However, Condon is less confident trying to communicate the passage of time; I'm sure "Dreamgirls" was never meant to accurately reflect the trials and tribulations of The Supremes and their disastrous history, but the material surely reaches for an epic take on the rise and fall of Motown's dominance.
That's a lot of backstory and character relationships to sort through, and after some time spent putting the puzzle pieces together, Condon gets impatient, and begins to glide through important stops in every character's journey. Effie goes from a star to a welfare mother in an alarmingly short amount of time, bested only by Early's quickie descent into drug abuse. There are little gaps like that all over the screenplay, building toward a gaping hole of character comprehension by the end of the film. Condon nervously fixes this problem by pumping even more glitter in front of the camera.
Even if the audience couldn't care less about the personal lives of these cardboard personalities, the acting more than jolts the movie when it needs it. To see Eddie Murphy in a role that doesn't require total humiliation is a mind-altering experience. As the James Brown/Jackie Wilson hybrid Early, Murphy is a pure delight, effortlessly delivering his own vocals and perfecting the on-stage strut of a black artist in the 1960s. Early's scenes are the film's highlights.
The same could be said of newcomer Jennifer Hudson, who simply blows her fellow Dreams away with this, her first foray into feature film acting. Blessed with a voice that could rotate the planet, Hudson gives a tremendous reading of Effie's musical obstruction, leading to a bombastic performance of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," which is the film's singular moment of usable musical catharsis. Hudson blows away Knowles and Rose with her unnervingly confident stage performance, and doesn't embarrass herself in the least away from the microphone. If anyone deserves to play Oscar-bait in "Dreamgirls," it's Hudson and her healthy pipes.
In the wake of triumphant, Oscar-winning musical bio-pics such as "Ray" and "Walk the Line," "Dreamgirls" appears to have missed its prime opportunity to make the same lasting impact it did on Broadway 25 years ago. The music thunders, the vocals tower, and the costumes sparkle, but there's no meat to this empty production. It's sweating so hard to entertain that it forgets to engage.