Bill Condon, who wrote the screenplay for the last big screen musical success “Chicago,” has stepped up to direct as well as adapt the 1981 Broadway hit “Dreamgirls”–which ran for nearly four years on the Great White Way–and the result is as good or better than that 2002 Oscar-winner. In bringing the show to the screen with such vibrancy and elan after a two-and-a -half decade wait, Condon has not only shown his own versatility (after “Gods and Monsters” and “Kinsey”), but has found a cinematic equivalent for Michael Bennett’s eye-popping staging. The result is as triumphant on the screen as it was on the boards, though like the original, it’s a triumph of style over substance.
Loosely based, it’s often said, on the career of The Supremes (though some dispute that), the story opens in Detroit in the early sixties, where a trio called the Dreamettes–lead singer Effie (Jennifer Hudson), Deena (Beyonce Knowles) and Lorell (Anika Noni Rose)–are waiting to go on stage at a rigged talent show. The evening’s headliner is wild-eyed James Thunder Early (Eddie Murphy), who’s suddenly in need of backup singers when his usual group deserts him; and cunning Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a car dealer looking to finagle his way into the music business, outfoxes Early’s grizzled manager Marty (Danny Glover) to get the gig for the girls, despite Effie’s misgivings. Naturally they’re a hit, and Curtis–with dreams of crossover stardom–displaces Marty and takes over Early’s career.
But Thunder–a sensual James Taylor type–proves to be too incorrigably “black” for white audiences, so Curtis relegates him to lesser bookings while remaking the Dreamettes into a trio that will be able to cross the color barrier. That requires promoting the svelte, sexy, light-skinned Deena to center stage while shifting Effie, who has a great voice but is on the pudgy side, to supporting status. Effie simmers over this, as well as the breakup of her romance with Curtis (who turns on to Deena instead). Her increasing unpredictability ultimately leads Curtis to dump Effie from the group entirely and replace her with Michelle (Sharon Leal).
The trajectory of the remaining plot follows the Dreamettes’ huge popularity and Curtis’ ascension to the top of the business while Effie and her son (by Curtis, unknown to him) struggle to get by. The last reel, however, brings a reversal as the trio split up and Effie finds a second chance with the long-forgotten Marty, despite Curtis’ efforts to block her.
“Dreamgirls” deftly works the historical context into the narrative–issues of racism and street riots are raised–but that aspect of the story is kept in the background rather than thrust center-stage, where the personal drama remains dominant. And, of course, since this is, after all, a musical, that drama is drawn in very broad strokes. There’s no dramatic depth here, just melodramatics made palatable by the musical framework. And, to be honest, the score by Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger was always more good than great, and the years haven’t improved it. But Condon, like Bennett before him, puts the show across with such dazzling brio that the shallowness of it all doesn’t really matter. Like “Chicago,” “Dreamgirls” sells middle-grade material with sheer razzmatazz, with the directorial verve ably abetted by John Myhre’s splashy production design, Sharen CQ Davis’ colorful costumes and Tobias Schliessler’s energetic but elegant cinematography.
On the performance side, the best work comes from where you might least expect it. Foxx is smooth but rather straightlaced as the ambitious Curtis, but Murphy makes a spectacular Early, putting across both his musical numbers and his dialogue scenes with such energy it almost makes you forgive him for all the turkeys he’d been in over the years. And while Knowles is fine as Deena, she pales beside newcomer Jennifer Hudson, whose Effie is as overpowering on the distaff side as Murphy’s Early is on the male one (although she isn’t helped by the makeup job in the final act). She delivers her big solo “I’m Not Going,” with such devastating force–an effect Condon cannily enhances with his staging–that even though the number isn’t really much more than an imitation of “Rose’s Turn” from “Gypsy,” it brings down the house. There’s solid supporting work from Glover, Rose, Leal and Keith Robinson, as Effie’s composer brother.
On stage “Dreamgirls” was never considered a classic–even in its original incarnation it lost the best musical Tony for 1981 to “Nine.” But after the string of dud musicals that have littered the screen since “Chicago,” it reaffirms that Broadway smashes can still work on the screen. All it takes is a filmmaker who knows how to do it right.