Twenty-five years on from its triumphant Broadway opening, the dream of turning Dreamgirls into a movie finally becomes a reality in a glittering musical spectacular shaping up to be one of this year’s leading Oscar contenders. Deftly sidestepping the stage-to-screen pitfalls that made Rent and The Producers half-hearted shadows of their former selves, Chicago writer Bill Condon retains the original’s energy and excitement while still delivering a richly satisfying cinematic experience. If there’s a problem here, it’s the way his film divides its focus between three competing protagonists – a tactic which, while ensuring none of its brilliantly talented stars are ever shortchanged, leaves the audience confused as to where their ultimate sympathies should lie.
Transparently inspired by the swift rise of Diana Ross and the Supremes under the tutelage of Motown supremo Berry Gordy, Dreamgirls’ familiar story has a thoroughly conventional narrative arc. To his credit, Condon is still able to spring a few surprises, ingeniously connecting the Dreamettes’ inroads into the white-dominated music biz to the Civil Rights movement. He also gives potentially stagebound sequences a thrilling zip with the creative use of editing, split-screen and montage. The real bombshell, however, is the double-whammy of Hollywood veteran Eddie Murphy and newcomer and former American Idol finalist Jennifer Hudson.
As James “Thunder” Early, the soul pioneer who gives the renamed Dreams their first break only to see his own star fade, Murphy delivers easily his best work to date in a role that perfectly utilises his wise-cracking persona, earthy singing voice and steadily advancing years. True, his part becomes increasingly peripheral as the plot develops, lessening the emotional tug of his eventual departure. For the first hour, though, he’s Dreamgirls’ driving force – a sizzling combo of James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Little Richard.
It takes something special to eclipse such a scene-stealing dynamo and, remarkably, Hudson manages it as Effie, the big-boned diva forced to surrender lead vocals to Beyoncé’s less gifted but more photogenic usurper. Watching Hudson sing the blues is a rare treat and the show-stopping anthem ‘And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going’ emerges as the single most memorable moment. When her character is similarly marginalised, it robs the movie of its most compelling presence and defining heartbeat.
Which brings us, inevitably, to Knowles. Stunningly beautiful, impeccably poised and given her own show-stopper in second-act highlight ‘Listen’, the Destiny’s Child hottie finally proves she has the acting chops to go with those bootylicious curves. In a chain boasting the likes of Murphy, Hudson and Jamie Foxx, though, Beyoncé can’t help being the weak link. It’s her most accomplished performance so far, and one she will no doubt build on in future, but if Dreamgirls falls short of the giddy heights other big-screen musicals have reached, it’s easy to spot the cause.
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An old-school crowd-pleaser in the best Hollywood tradition, Dreamgirls is only let down by its piecemeal structure and nominal leading lady.