...a grand show of the glitter and glitz that can accompany ascension
“Dreamgirls” is a rollicking piece of pop musical history wrapped in the spirit
of both opera and movie musical. An amalgam of the legendary Supremes and many
other musical inspirations, the big human drama is told in song. The entire cast
– whether singing, dancing, fighting or celebrating – is exceptional. The only
negative here is that when film makers know they are on to a good thing, they
feel entitled to run way past the optimum one hour and fifty minutes. The movie
is too long. But one thing at a time.
Tell me a story. Isn’t that what we want? Here it is - Las Vegas, 1968, a trio whose lead singer will be a present side player, Deena Jones. Deena is played by Beyonce Knowles who must have been in just the right place when the good stuff was handed out. She is tall, elegant, and astonishingly beautiful, and she can sing like an angel. Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) knows a good thing when he sees it. As he takes over management of the group, he has eyes only for success and little concern for the dramas unfolding within the group. When one of the girls leaves, she is replaced by Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), a young woman with a great big natural voice and enormous personal vitality. The natural lead for the group, she is replaced by Deena. The shadow of Diana Ross looms tall. This may not be a biography of the Supremes, but surely the phrase “inspired by” is apt.
Director Bill Condon adapts the 1981 Broadway show for this movie; both deal with the crossover of the group into the big time. The whole of it is a dazzling display of color and movement – of wigs, clothes, dance, and nightclubs flying by as both story and background for the crossover. The group begins its ascent singing backup to James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy), an unstable lightning bolt of a dancer and singer. Jimmy and Curtis do some backstage manipulating that results in elevating Deena and diminishing the life force of Effie’s personality. Based, we know, on Diana Ross’s replacement of Florence Ballard, it seems in both movie and legend, a very cruel blow. We are left to imagine the emotions that sudden fame heaps on the shoulders of the inexperienced – and who can acquire experience before acclaim hits? Fame rarely drops on the shoulders of sophisticated, experienced, balanced human beings. It picks unexposed talents and throws them suddenly and wickedly into the bright light of the celebrity world.
The movie is a grand show of the glitter and glitz that can accompany ascension; it has many timelines and a thicket of roots in pop musical history (Michael Bennett did the Broadway show). Bill Condon has drawn great performances from Beyonce Knowles and Eddie Murphy and an explosive one from Jennifer Hudson who jumped into this first movie role from, of all unexpected places, “American Idol.” Long may she prosper
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