Some 25 years ago, I was fortunate enough to score opening
night tickets to the pre-Broadway Boston run of a new stage musical
that was reportedly based on the rise of Diana Ross and the Supremes.
Even after all these years, there are still some things about that
production of DREAMGIRLS, directed by Michael Bennett and written
by the late Tom Eyen (with music by Henry Kreiger) that I vividly recall.
The sparse stage with large towers that moved around and served
to create the scenes. The stunning choreography, especially a number
called "Steppin' to the Bad Side," which dealt with payola. And of course,
there was the first act closing number that Jennifer Holliday belted
out -- what became her signature song "And I'm Telling You I'm Not
Going." (I did object to the way Bennett staged the number, though,
with Holliday holding the last note as her character leaves the stage
and the Dreams arrive to sing a few bars of a number; to me it
somehow seemed insulting to Holliday and her performance.)
The show's second act had some problems for me as well.
Deena -- the character modeled on Diana Ross -- just wasn't that
interesting -- and that was no reflection on Sheryl Lee Ralph who
originated the role. Still, DREAMGIRLS was a stunning achievement
and it won six Tony Awards and ran on Broadway for over 1500
Over the last quarter century, there have been various rumors
of a movie version but as the fortunes of the motion picture business
have varied, so too did the public's appreciation for movie musicals.
There was a brief flurry in the late 1970s with the success of
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, GREASE, and ALL THAT JAZZ, but the
80s ushered in a new era and into the 90s, musicals were not high
on anyone's list. The advent of MTV and VH1 and other outlets that
played music videos was partly to blame as was the balkanization
of the radio airwaves, not to mention other societal changes.
When the film version of CHICAGO was released in 2002 (after
a long and protracted development period), audiences salivated for
more and studios went ahead with a few other adaptations of
Broadway shows, but most of those were box-office failures for
myriad reasons. In an ironic twist, the man who really deserved a lot
of the credit for CHICAGO's success -- screenwriter Bill Condon --
went unsung. Yet, he was in a position to tackle other projects
and after making an intelligent pitch to David Geffen, the owner of
the screen rights to DREAMGIRLS, Condon found himself with the
job of turning the stage show into a major motion picture.
You are probably asking, what about the movie? Well, on the
big screen DREAMGIRLS certainly is dazzling and enjoyable, but in my
humble opinion, Condon didn't completely address or compensate
for the flaws in Eyen's original book. Key relations are formulated
offscreen with the audience learning of them after the fact. The
second act also continues to create problems as the parallel stories
of the two major female roles -- Deena Jones (played on screen by
Beyoncé Knowles) and Effie White (newcomer Jennifer Hudson) --
vie for the audience's attention. In truth, Deena's tale is the more
boring one, mainly because even in 1981 it had been told numerous
times: the rise of a celebrity in Hollywood who discovers that fame
and fortune doesn't always translate into one's personal life.
Effie's story arc is a bit more intriguing -- a strong, opinionated
woman who doesn't quite fit the ideal of beauty gets pushed aside,
suffers and struggles to make a comeback. There's more drama and
passion in her tale, so it comes as no surprise that Hudson's Effie
becomes the heart and soul of the piece, just as Holliday's Effie
did on stage.
If you know anything about the history of Motown or the
story of Diana Ross and the Supremes, then you know the outline
of the plot of DREAMGIRLS. Three teenage girls -- Deena Jones, Effie
White and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) -- take part in a local
talent contest as the Dreamettes. Car salesman turned talent agent
Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx) pays off the judge so the girls lose
but he offers them a chance to be the back-up singers to James
"Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy), a cross between Little Richard and
James Brown. Curtis manages to eventually convince Early to leave
his older manager (Danny Glover) and join him. As Curtis attempts
to build his empire, he engages in payola, develops ties with gangsters
(off screen), and beds first Effie, then Deena. He makes the decision
to move Effie to the background, feeling that the more attractive
Deena would be more palatable to the public. Eventually, Effie is
fired and she retreats into poverty while Deena and the Dreams
enjoy success. Until one day, Deena wakes up and realizes just how
controlling Curtis really is and sets about to deliver payback while
planning for the final appearance of the group.
Because Condon's screenplay adheres very closely to the original,
the problems of the stage musical are replicated on screen. He has
managed to create new scenes and new characters that attempt to
flesh out and address some of the shortcomings, but because a great
deal of key plot points happen offscreen, it can become a bit frustrating.
Condon, wearing his director hat, though, almost manages to
correct some of these problems -- almost, but not quite.
From its opening sequence which includes quick cuts of shoes,
rustling dresses and backstage noises, Condon invokes the style
and approach of both Michael Bennett (who was one of Broadway's
most cinematic stagers) and Bob Fosse, particularly the Fosse of
ALL THAT JAZZ. These scenes establish a momentum that propels
the story and the quick series of musical numbers, amateur variety
acts, sets the audience up for the initial appearance of the Dreamettes.
Again, establishing character, Effie is the last to arrive and the
most vocal about the cheap wigs and lackluster dresses. Still,
once she gets out on the stage and begins belting "Move," things
take off. The whirlwind story then involves the girls accepting the
offer to travel with Early and traces the beginnings of their career.
Up until a song called "Family," the musical numbers in the film
are all stage performances or rehearsals. "Family," in which Curtis,
Deena, Lorrell and C.C. (Keith Robinson), Effie's songwriter brother,
sing about the ties that bind them and the decision to move Deena
up to lead singer relegating Effie to the background. Needless to
say, Effie isn't happy, but she goes along to please her brother
and her lover Curtis. When she finally realizes that she's been
replaced as Curtis' lover and as a member of the singing group
(by Sharon Leal's Michelle), Effie has a mini-breakdown which
lead to the show-stopping number "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going."
Hudson delivered this song with all the gusto and pain it required,
and at that moment morphed from merely a performer into a
bona fide star.
The second half of the film, like the stage play, isn't
quite as emotionally involving, mostly because Deena is such
a limp character. Knowles does what she can and the addition
of a new song, "Listen," attempts to correct the imbalance,
but it doesn't. The high points of this part of the film are Effie's
two numbers, the soulful "I Am Changing" and the tender
"One Night Only" (which gets a disco makeover by Deena and
I cannot say enough about Hudson's portrayal of Effie.
She commandeers every scene that she is in and the camera
loves her. Murphy appears to be having a blast as Early, although
I couldn't help recalling the parodies of James Brown he used
to do on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. Rose is fine as Lorrell, who
enters into a relationship with James Early, and Keith Robinson
has his moments as Effie's brother. For me, the weakest link
in the cast was Jamie Foxx. His singing was atrocious and
while I respected what he was trying to do as Curtis, I don't
think he brought this Machiavellian character fully to life.
There's a nice cameo by Loretta Devine (who originated the
role of Lorrell on stage) and solid supporting work from
Danny Glover and Hinton Battle.
DREAMGIRLS has its flaws and weaknesses, but it still
is a worthy translation of the stage show to the big screen and
definitely worth a look.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language, some sexuality
and drug content
Running time: 131 mins.
Viewed at the Paramount Screening Room
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.