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DREAMGIRLS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson
Director:  Bill Condon
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Dreamworks
Features:  See Review
Length:  130 Minutes
Release Date:  May 1, 2007

“Deena’s beautiful, and she’s always been beautiful…but I’VE GOT THE VOICE!”

Film ***1/2

Two of last year’s most heartbreaking movie moments came in Dreamgirls.  One was Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going”.  It’s so powerful the only sound you can hear over her voice is that of her Oscar statue being engraved at the exact same moment.  The second belongs to Eddie Murphy.  I’ll leave it for you to discover.

It would be a stretch to call Dreamgirls a great film, but it most definitely is a good one, with moments that transcend greatness.  This colorful, musical, glorified and frequently moving fictionalized look at the rise of Motown and a girl group that bears strong resemblance to The Supremes is very nearly a slice of old school Hollywood entertainment.  When they say they don’t make ‘em like this anymore, there’s truth in the adage.

The girls are The Dreamettes, led by the brash, no-nonsense Effie (Hudson), and they land a break early on when an ambitious manager named Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Foxx) persuades soul star Jimmy “Thunder” Early (Murphy) to take them on as backing singers.  But in their day, African American artists were relegated to playing small circuit shows, and their records were marketed only to black audiences.  The instant a song generated a buzz, some white artist would swoop in, record it, and have himself a cheesy hit.

Taylor dreams of crossover success and the first major black music empire.  He tries to pigeonhole Jimmy and the girls into his idea of a new sound.  Jimmy has a hard time adapting, but with The Dreamettes, Curtis knows he has the ingredients he needs.  There would have to be one change…namely, sending the big voiced Effie into the background in favor of the sleeker, more attractive Deena (Knowles).

It works, but at a price.  The increasingly heartbroken Effie begins to realize that neither Curtis nor her group has much of a place for her anymore, leading to Hudson’s showstopping number.  But Curtis has his sights set on making Deena a star, and anyone who steps in his way is at great risk…including Deena herself.

The group becomes a smash as Effie fades more and more into obscurity.  Curtis even thwarts her one chance at a comeback, taking her new soulful ballad and turning it into a disco hit for the newly christened Dreams.

And what of Jimmy Early?  A man who once started trends finds himself a victim of not being able to follow them.  He can’t fit into Curtis’ plan of newer, more commercial sounds, needing instead to be true to the music that burns inside him.  But in Curtis’ world, dreams are an easy commodity…easily made, easily sold, and easily discarded.

The music overall isn’t quite as good as the real Motown stuff ingrained in our collective consciousness, but the performances are all first rate.  This is an excellent follow-up for Jamie Foxx, who took home an Oscar himself for Ray.  And though Beyonce plays the girl who wasn’t supposed to have a great voice, she still manages to shine and prove what a superstar she is.  Her song of liberation is another showstopper.

I remembered, as many do, Eddie Murphy’s take on James Brown in his Saturday Night Live days, and I actually wondered if he just pulled out the old impression and dusted it off for this role.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Murphy delivers a performance you won’t forget…fully realized, dimensioned, and filled with bravado and pathos.  Not to mention, the man really can sing.  I loved Little Miss Sunshine, and I have great respect for Alan Arkin…but Eddie got robbed.

But oh, Jennifer Hudson…what a star she’s become.  She may have lost on American Idol, but she won Oscar gold…a fair trade for any day of the week.  She carries Effie with heart and soul, with confidence and relentlessness.  And what a voice.  WHAT A VOICE.

I don’t know if the movie musical is ready for a full out comeback or not, but if it is, Bill Condon is the man to lead the way.  His Oscar winning triumph Chicago laid the groundwork, and Dreamgirls proved his success was no flash in the pan.  It was the most Oscar nominated film of last year, even though it missed out on a Best Picture nod.  Condon is a man who knows how to give his audiences a show, and how to get the most out of his actors, who sing fearlessly and ferociously, as if their lives depended on it.

I also loved that it was a mostly truthful, if somewhat glamorized, look at the rise of African American music on the pop charts.  It’s hard for those of us who grew up in the 70s, with the echoes of Motown still serving as the soundtracks of our summers, to believe that at one time these incredible artists were more or less novelties.  Where would we be without blues, jazz, soul, R&B and gospel?  To quote Henry Jefferson on All in the Family, I can’t even think about it; it’s pathetic.

One could sit and pick nits about how much of the story really reflects the rise of Motown, Berry Gordy, Diana Ross and more, or one could just sit back and enjoy the songs, the dancing, and the radiant stars.  I could do the former, but I prefer to do the latter.  Think of The Supremes all you want, but these Dreamgirls sing for themselves.

Video ****

It’s been a while since Dreamworks issued their own DVD, but they haven’t lost their touch.  This bright, colorful and detailed anamorphic presentation is sensational from start to finish.  Tones are rich and vibrant throughout, and I noticed no grain or compression to mar the transfer.

Audio ****

This 5.1 audio really sings, as you might imagine.  It’s expressive, dynamic, and energetic from start to finish.  Hearing the stars, especially Hudson, belting out their tunes in digital surround glory is a truly magical listening experience.

Features ***

This double disc set is quite loaded…the first disc has a whopping 12 extended musical numbers, including a performance by Jennifer Hudson not shown in theatres.  There is also a music video for “Listen” by Beyonce.

The second disc has a full length making-of documentary, as well as auditions and screen tests, previsualization sequences, three production featurettes, and an image gallery.

Summary:

Dreamgirls may not be a perfect movie, as I’ve mentioned, but there are moments in it that are the equal of anything else seen on the screen in recent memory.  This is dynamite entertainment with a smashing DVD presentation…a fine return to form for Dreamworks.

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