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Golden "Girls": Musical a supremely entertaining adaptation
Seattle Times movie critic
"Dreamgirls" wraps you up in its music, like a velvet coat of sound, and when it's over you feel warmed, happy and thoroughly entertained — a gift that the best musicals can bring. Movie musicals lately have been careening all over the map, from the delicious ("Chicago") to the so-so ("The Producers") to the whose-idea-was-this-anyway ("Rent"). Directed and adapted by Bill Condon (who also wrote the "Chicago" screenplay), "Dreamgirls" arrives laden with sparkle; an imperfect but genuine pleasure.
Adapted from the 1981 Broadway hit musical (by Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger, directed by Michael "A Chorus Line" Bennett) about a Motown-style girl group climbing the showbiz ladder, "Dreamgirls" underwent a few changes on its way to the screen. The stage version is mostly sung through (that is, it's almost an opera, with few spoken lines); Condon's rewrite is a more conventional structure, with songs punctuating traditional dialogue. We're given some sense of the '60s (Martin Luther King's voice is briefly heard, and we see race riots in Detroit), but for the most part the movie floats in its own tuneful bubble.
"Dreamgirls," with Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover, Jennifer Hudson, Anika Noni Rose, Keith Robinson.
Written and directed byBill Condon, based on the stage musical by Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger. 131 minutes. Rated PG-13 for language, some sexuality and drug content. Several theaters.
Condon struggles a bit with the balance between song and speech: Early on, all the songs are presented as staged performances, with the story coming in between. Suddenly, in a scene in an alley, the characters sing to each other in conversation, and it's jarring. Condon hasn't set this up in a way that makes sense, or staged it with enough ease that we don't question it. (Nobody questions, say, the dancing gangs in "West Side Story"; the movement flows so naturally out of walking, and so perfectly captures the coiled menace of the gang members' physicality, it feels exactly right.) Musicals speak a unique language, with song and/or dance at any moment substituting for the spoken word (ideally, expressing more than mere words could); in the more naturalistic realm of the movies, it's a leap of faith for a filmmaker and an audience. Here, it seems to take too long for Condon to establish that this is a musical; the songs delivered anywhere other than a stage or studio come at first as a jolt and an oddity.
But the strength of his well-chosen cast carries us through the structural problems, entertaining us so richly that "Dreamgirls" does indeed become a dream. At its center is Jennifer Hudson as Effie, lead singer of the Dreamettes (as the trio call themselves in their humble beginnings), who has a powerhouse voice but is less pretty than her cohorts. As the Dreamettes, re-christened the Dreams, acquire a manager (Jamie Foxx) and undergo transformations on their way to the top, Effie is cast aside in favor of the demure, lovely Deena (Beyoncé Knowles). "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" is Effie's swan song, a defiant wail of strength and emotion.
Hudson, making her film debut (she's best known for her "American Idol" appearances in 2004), is mesmerizingly right as Effie; she wears her vulnerability on her face, and whether it's a deliberate choice or simply a product of Hudson's inexperience, it works perfectly for the character, who's both a confident diva and a tremulous bundle of nerves. As a singer, though, Hudson's completely at ease, and she rips through Effie's songs like a runaway freight train. Her "And I Am Telling You" is huge, swallowing up everything around her, and Condon seems to cut away from it too quickly; we need to savor the moment more.
The beautiful Knowles (who looks smashing in massive '60s hair and glitter kitsch) is a better actress when she's singing; her Deena lacks nuance in the dialogue scenes, but comes to life when the music plays. She's a standout in "Listen," a ballad (newly written for the film) aimed at her complex feelings toward the manager, Curtis, who sees her as a commodity. Belting out the lyric "I found the voice you think you gave to me," she's become a small tower of strength. Rounding out the trio is Anika Noni Rose, who's touching as the very young, wide-eyed Lorrell.
Foxx is effective (and shows off an appealingly light singing voice) as the ambitious Curtis, but outside of the Dreams, the movie belongs — who could have guessed? — to Eddie Murphy. As singer James "Thunder" Early, who gives the girls their first break, he's loose, funny and charming in his fast-talking confidence. (And yes, the man can sing like gangbusters; in a late concert scene, he radiates joy.) Early's star fades as the girls' rises, and Murphy lets us see his increasing vulnerability.
In one scene, C.C. (Effie's brother and the group's early songwriter/choreographer, played by Keith Robinson) disapprovingly watches Early give himself a heroin injection. Murphy's look back at him is a wonder: resignation, anger and fear all swirled together; a man all too aware of what he has become. It's marvelous work from an actor in danger of becoming a caricature; in this one performance, Murphy wipes out memories of all the awful movies he's made in recent years.
With its splashy sets, stylized lighting and over-the-top diva gowns, "Dreamgirls" looks larger than life, which is exactly how it should: This is a big musical with big emotions, reaching out to embrace us. It's not a great movie but it is great entertainment; a dazzling tapestry of song, both shouted and crooned.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725
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