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FEATURE ARTICLE

 
MOVIE REVIEW: Dreamgirls

 

Rating: PG-13

 

Marque: Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson, Anika Noni Rose, Danny Glover

 

What: Directed by "Chicago" director Bill Condon, Dreamgirls tells the story of three teens – the throaty lead singer Effie (Jennifer Hudson), pretty Deena (Beyoncé Knowles), and meek Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) - from the Motor City in the early ‘60s with a dream of becoming singing sensations. With the help of Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), who later creates Rainbow Records, the girls receive recognition on the chitlin circuit.  However Taylor wants more and to achieve cross-over success he replaces Effie with the softer, thinner more attractive Deena.  As the group skyrockets, so does dissention and bitterness.

 

The Review:  Dreamgirls is a tale of American dreams mixed with American tragedy.  As a remake of the 1981 Broadway musical, the plot and outcome are predictable.  However, the basis of the film makes it more than intriguing.  The film echoes the rise of Diana Ross (Beyoncé), Mary Wilson (Lorrell) and Florence Ballard (Effie) of the Supremes; their meeting with mentor/boss Berry Gordy Jr. (Jamie Foxx); and their success at Motown Records, with 12 No. 1 hits in five years.  Even some of the film's images are direct copies of iconic Motown photos.

 

Condon took a risk by casting a relative unknown (Jennifer Hudson) in the key role of Effie, but it more than pays off. Cast aside after Curtis decides she's too much trouble, Effie spends a good deal of time in exile, working on a comeback. While Hudson more than holds up her end in the singing department, she's a good enough actress to keep her character likeable, admirably tough instead of annoyingly stubborn.

 

An even bigger surprise, however, is Eddie Murphy as Jimmy Early. When he could have fallen back on his well-tooled James Brown/ Little Richard impression, Murphy instead mixes up a number of different performers into his act and adds his own swagger and polish, while not forgetting the painful vulnerability of a once ground-breaking artist who's terrified about being left behind. 

 

Unfortunately, Foxx plays things closer to the vest than he normally does, which gives his character a chilling villainy at times, but comes dangerously close to non-acting at others.  In the same boat is Beyoncé.  Despite being hailed as the headliner, she is the weak link as the Diana Ross-inspired Deena. Beyoncé has the voice and the looks but exhibits very little screen presence. Instead it is Jennifer Hudson who is the breakout star here and the climax of the movie comes as Hudson belts the Apollo classic, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” 

 

Even more frustrating is the lack of depth around Deena and Curtis.  After spending the time and effort to highlight the 1967 riots and payola practices, it surprises me that the film so lightly skims over the dynamics between the two. While it eventually becomes clear that Curtis’ ambition has overshadowed the voice of Deena, you never get that impression until the end of the movie.  In fact, I question whether or not viewers would even get that impression had it not been for Deena blatantly saying it. As a result, there’s absolutely no viewer empathy when Deena walks out on Curtis.  The relationship between Jimmy and Lorrell had more depth than Deena and Curtis. Empathy and sympathy are what makes a good film great; when viewers can connect.

 

Motown fanatics could pick Dreamgirls apart on questions of accuracy — Eddie Murphy’s character is a weird mix of James Brown and Little Richard while Florence Ballard, a.k.a. Effie, died in her early 30s in poverty; she didn’t magically stage a comeback triumph — but perhaps Effie is Ballard’s last hoorah.



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