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click to enlarge Surprise, surprise: Beyonc ditches her gal pals for - dreams of greater fame.
  • Surprise, surprise: Beyonc ditches her gal pals for dreams of greater fame.

*Dreamgirls (PG-13)

Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
Dreamgirls arrives in theaters this holiday season as the latest attempt at a stage-to-screen musical translation and in the wake of the double-whiff that was last year's Rent and The Producers.

Undoubtedly, there were concerns about its release: This 20-year-old paean to a 40-years-gone era could have felt just as dated as Rent, or lost its energetic live-performance mojo. But writer/director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) delivers a version that's simply, unobtrusively satisfying entertainment writ large, and without apology.

The tale opens in the 1960s, at a Detroit talent competition. A trio known as The Dreamettes Deena (Beyonc Knowles), Effie (Jennifer Hudson) and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) fails to win the event, but they capture the attention of Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a car salesman with visions of becoming an entertainment manager. Taylor successfully wrangles a gig for The Dreamettes as touring backup singers for popular soul performer James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy), but soon the women promise to be even bigger than the headliner. And when fame enters the equation, relationships shift and become complicated.

The obvious romn-a-clef similarities between characters here and certain Motown-era celebrities Berry Gordy, Diana Ross, The Jackson 5, etc. received plenty of attention when the musical first hit the stage, and maybe the idea that you're getting a thinly disguised tell-all makes the story more appealing. But the film doesn't need to be about real people to show off some interesting real-life ideas.

Dreamgirls works best as an old-fashioned backstage melodrama, full of strong performances and big production values. The songs by Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger, while not exactly reminiscent of the era they're trying to evoke, provide catchy hooks for the various montages and emotional crescendos. Foxx sinks his teeth into Taylor's manipulative side, and Knowles does fine work with a more low-key role. But the show-stopper is ex-American Idol contestant Hudson, and not just because she gets to let loose on "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." You'll hear her name a lot during awards season, and for once, it's justified. She creates a fully realized, smartly acted character.

If only the same were true for the other much-touted cast member, Eddie Murphy. Yes, he has a decent enough voice, but he's woefully inadequate at giving James Early the right edge. He's got to be a force-of-nature soul machine whose despair at being put through the disco-pop processor is palpable. Yet there's no power to the scene where Early disintegrates onstage, because Murphy never seems like a guy who has a problem doing exactly what's required to make everyone like him.

Fortunately, his is a small enough chunk of Dreamgirls that he can't spoil it entirely. Condon's pacing is just right, and he stays out of the way of the music and the simple human drama. On a certain level, it may feel like only a minor variation on the hundreds of other weepies about the perils of reaching for fame but a story like this can soar with a score. The feelings hit you harder when the characters sing out their pleasures and pains.

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