When you're making a movie musical based loosely around a fictional Motown and the best singer in your cast is Eddie Murphy, you've got problems. That's the stumbling block writer-director Bill Condon never quite cleared in putting together the movie version of the Broadway hit Dreamgirls.
Murphy doesn't have the best voice in the picture; in fact, his modest tenor is easily outclassed by the actresses who play the three original members of the Dreamgirls group: Beyoncé Knowles, American Idol finalist Jennifer Hudson, and Anika Noni Rose. Those three divas, however, approach singing as an athletic competition, a challenge to see how much volume and embellishment each can cram into every line. Their performances are more exhausting than inspiring.
Murphy, by contrast, knows how to shape a song and sell it. He knows how to balance humor and seriousness, quiet and loud, bawdy and romantic. He knows how to give a song a personality, and he knows that the climax should come at the end of the number, not at the beginning. In a movie that's supposedly about soul music, Murphy's character, Jimmy "Thunder" Early, is the only truly soulful singer on the screen. The thing is, the movie isn't about him.
It's about three teenage girls from Detroit who form a vocal group called the Dreamettes. As they work the local amateur shows, their focal point is Effie (Hudson), a belter who wows the crowds while Deena (Knowles) and Michelle (Leal) chirp harmonies behind her. The trio gets its big break when it's hired as Jimmy Early's backup singers, the Raelettes to his Ray Charles.
Meanwhile, a local Cadillac salesman named Curtis (Jamie Foxx) has founded Rainbow Records as a vehicle for liberating Jimmy from the R&B charts and putting him on the pop charts. With help from the pop-soul ditties written by Effie's brother C.C. (Keith Robinson) and from the $20 bills paper-clipped to the 45s that Curtis hands out to white DJs, Jimmy's records do cross over. Suddenly, Rainbow is a major-league record label.
There are romantic complications. Lorrell is sleeping with Jimmy in the vain hope that he'll eventually leave his wife. Curtis is openly sleeping with Effie and possibly sleeping with Deena. And when the record exec launches the renamed Dreams as his next crossover act, he decides that the light-skinned, skinny-hipped, small-voiced Deena should be the lead singer, not the dark-skinned, big-hipped, big-voiced Effie. Effie is furious, and she keeps acting out until she gets herself fired, replaced by Michelle (Rose).
The Dreams become one of the biggest acts in pop music; Deena marries Curtis, and they live in aristocratic splendor. Meanwhile, Jimmy gets dropped by the label, and Effie slips into poverty with her love child. The soap opera gets bubblier still when C.C. finally leaves Rainbow and helps Effie launch a comeback that provokes reactions from both Deena and Curtis.
All this backstage melodrama might have worked better if Condon had allowed his characters to become real personalities rather than types, but the director won't give them a chance. His editing is so jittery, his camera movement so frenetic, his shots such a blur of stage lights and glittery costumes that the typical music video feels as stately as a Russian art film by contrast.
Nor does it help that the movie is nearly devoid of humor. In fact, the funniest line here comes at the end of the final credits, with the announcement, "These characters and events are fictional and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental." It's no secret that Dreamgirls is closely modeled on the Supremes and Motown Records, and what fun there is in the movie comes from matching the thinly disguised fictional characters to their real-life counterparts.
The Dreams/Dreamettes are the Supremes (who were once known as the Primettes). Deena is skinny, small-voiced Diana Ross, and Effie is pudgy, big-voiced Florence Ballard (who did wind up on welfare). Michelle is Mary Wilson, and Lorrell is Cindy Birdsong. Berry Gordy, an autoworker, founded Motown and used his dictatorial control to create a crossover success story, just as Curtis, an auto salesman, founded Rainbow and used the same tactics to create a similar success. Gordy and Curtis each moved his company from here to Los Angeles and dated his biggest star. C.C. is Smokey Robinson, who was Gordy's favorite writer-producer and vice president. Jimmy Early is Jackie Wilson, the old-school R&B star who scored his first hits with songs written by a pre-Motown Gordy.
Condon is not shy about playing up these connections. The stage musical was set in Chicago, but Condon moves it to the Motor City and decorates Curtis' office with Dreams album covers that are dead ringers for famous Supremes album covers. He even adds a Jackson 5-like group called the Campbell Connection, whose Afro-topped, pre-pubescent lead singer squeals, "I love you, girl," at the end of a song that sounds suspiciously like "ABC." If only the Dreams' songs and vocals had more closely resembled the Supremes' hits.
Geoffrey Himes writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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