As movie genres go, the Hollywood musical is one of the most venerable, dating back almost to the origins of film itself. There was a time, when Americans were up to their necks in economic depression and Nazis, that our spirits were lifted by the likes of Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dumbo the elephant. The musical continued strongly throughout the next few decades, as larger and more lavish adaptations of the works of Gilbert & Sullivan and Lerner & Lowe hit the big screen.
The relatively recent advent of the special effects blockbuster tempered enthusiasm for the musical somewhat, though there have been various attempts to get people humming along in theaters again for the last 20 years or so (not counting the ubiquitous animated offerings from Disney and DreamWorks). Some have been truly inspired (“South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”), others less so (“From Justin to Kelly,” “Moulin Rouge!”). The pattern for the last few years has been to release a musical extravaganza during the holiday season, ostensibly because these kinds of movies always do well with families (and selectively ignoring the fact that most people would rather sit through two hours of that f*****g banana singing “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” than talk to their relatives), but also because they always seem to snag a few nominations for the coming awards season. Miramax used this tactic to great effect with “Chicago,” while Sony had somewhat less luck with “Rent.” Now it’s Paramount’s turn, as it brings the Broadway hit “Dreamgirls” to the big screen.
Loosely based on the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes, “Dreamgirls” follows the rise of the Dreamettes; Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles), Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose), and lead singer Effie White (Jennifer Hudson). After performing at a Detroit amateur night talent show, the group is approached by used-car salesman Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), who wants to be the group’s manager. He lands the girls a job providing back-up vocals for James Brown/Jackie Wilson amalgam James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy). Taylor convinces Early to record a single on his fledgling label, but when a white pop group releases a bland version of it without giving him any credit, Taylor realizes he’ll have to resort to good old fashioned payola to get airplay. The scheme works, and Early and the Dreamettes start getting wider notice.
Taylor’s next plan, getting Early into more traditionally white venues, backfires when it becomes apparent the singer can’t keep his gyrating pelvis from offending the Caucasians. Audiences respond well to the Dreamettes, however, especially Deena, who’s quite easy on the eyes. The heftier Effie is understandably miffed when Taylor bumps her as lead singer in favor of Deena, but stays on against her better judgment. The Dreamettes go on to great success, though Effie eventually does quit as Deena becomes a bigger star and becomes the object of Taylor’s romantic attentions. Her fortunes sag further as Taylor’s and Deena’s rise. The stage is therefore set for an improbable (and historically inaccurate) comeback for Effie and a showdown between Deena and an increasingly paranoid and controlling Taylor.
Since the Academy has all but handed out Oscars to Hudson and Murphy already, we should probably address their performances. Both are solid, more or less. In offering his James Brown imitation, Murphy has finally come full circle in a career that began with him spoofing Brown on “Saturday Night Live.” It’s certainly Murphy’s most nuanced performance since…I don’t know…”Trading Places,” I guess. It isn’t empirically that impressive, but compared to twenty years consisting of playing “The Nutty Professor” and Donkey on “Shrek,” Murphy might as well be channeling Sir Laurence Olivier.
Hudson is more of a mystery. The woman can wail, there’s no doubt about that, but Effie isn’t all that complicated of a character. She (perhaps rightfully) feels she deserves the limelight, but the only groundbreaking aspect of Hudson’s portrayal is that an “American Idol” finalist can actually appear in a big budget movie without embarrassing herself (take that, Justin Guarini).
Nobody else fares as well, unfortunately. Where Hudson is merely amateurish, Knowles is a block of wood, and Foxx has little to do besides ooze insincerity and attempt to sing. That’s another thing, allowing Hudson, Knowles, and Rose – all accomplished vocalists – to sing is a no-brainer. Allowing Foxx and Murphy – two comedic actors who have always aspired to singing stardom – to do the same is a bad move on director Bill Condon’s part. I’m sure doing his own songs was part of Foxx’s agreement to take the Taylor role, but the results are laughable. Foxx has no range, and Murphy little of it, making their attempts to belt out the tunes pretty dismal.
There are also some half-assed attempts at social commentary, as well as the same old song and dance about the perils of fame, all of which are obliterated by Knowles’ gazillion costume changes and the onscreen histrionics. “Dreamgirls” is a better musical than “Chicago” or “Rent,” but then, that isn’t really saying much.