December 27, 2006 -- This film has been getting a lot of Oscar hype. Its supporters hope it can pull off an upset at the Academy Awards with a win like another musical film, “Chicago” did a couple of years ago. The only trouble with that idea is that this film isn't the best film of the year and it isn't as good as “Chicago,” either. It is a good film all right, but the musical numbers are pretty weak. I didn't come out of the theater humming any of its tunes. There was nothing memorable about them. This is not due to a lack of singing talent, however. Singer Beyoncé Knowles is the best known star in the singing group, loosely based on the story of Motown group Diana Ross and the Supremes. The star of the show, however, is singer Jennifer Hudson, a former American Idol contestant (how could she have not won?), who has the showiest role and all the biggest musical numbers in the film. She's got a great voice, reminiscent of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
All the music sounds like it was a compilation of second-rate Broadway musical songs. Some of it does sound like the Motown songs of the 1960s, only not anywhere near as good. When you are doing a movie based on Motown Records and Motown artists, use Motown songs, not forgettable show tunes. Motown had some of the best, most memorable, most popular music ever produced in this country. Motown sold more records than the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley combined. None of the songs in this movie would ever be number one on the charts in Motown's heyday. They are O.K. for Broadway musicals and will be appreciated best by fans of that genre. This movie, of course, is based on the Broadway musical of the same name, so it uses many of the same songs. That's a shame. If you want to hear much better music, watch the movie or listen to the soundtrack from Standing in the Shadows of Motown. It has some good singers backed by the solid sounds of the Funk Brothers, Motown's longtime studio and touring band.
“Dreamgirls” does have a pretty good story about the girl group's tortured rise from obscurity to pop stardom. It takes you inside the record industry in the 1960s, exposing racism, sexism, payola and white artist covers of black original songs. The film is peopled with memorable characters, including an early black star on the Chitlin Circuit, James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy of “Bowfinger”), and an ambitious talent agent, Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx of “Ray”) who has a vision of bringing black talent to white audiences. While Taylor does indeed succeed in crossing the race barrier in the record industry, he does so at a price. He robs Early and the Dreams of their soul. He removes much of the black sound from their records to make them sound more palatable to whites. He even tries to turn them into disco divas in the 1970s.
The film's characters are distinct and they are complex. You really get to know what makes some of them tick. Probably the most complete characters in the film are Taylor and the powerful soul singer, Effie White (played by Jennifer Hudson). White is not only a powerful singer, she is a tough woman who disdains pity, won't quit on her dreams and refuses to ask for charity. Taylor is also a very strong person who knows he is always right, and he is right often enough that he has learned to always trust his instincts, even when they are dead wrong. He has become so controlling of everyone that his girlfriend, Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) finally lays down the law. Also good is Eddie Murphy, an underappreciated actor, who also, it turns out, is a good singer as well.
Murphy and Hudson both won supporting actor Golden Globes for their performance and the film won a Golden Globe for best musical or comedy. I think Murphy and Hudson are deserving, but the film is not. The music in “Happy Feet” is better, and “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Thank You for Smoking” are better overall. “Dreamgirls” is a good story filled with interesting characters, but it goes on way too long and the songs don't rise to the talent of the singers. This film rates a B.
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