This Christmas Day, Bill Condon is putting out a cry for help. The filmmaker may want to put down glitter guns and confetti cannons, but he can’t. Someone needs to rip them from his hands.
Condon’s adaptation of the Tony-award winning musical Dreamgirls is a glitz-and-glamour parade that certainly captures the period pageantry of R&B music circa Motown’s heyday. It’s meant as a thinly veiled take on the rise and fall of Diana Ross and the Supremes.
But, it’s a depressingly stiff film about rhythm and blues that, except for the efforts of co-stars Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy, has no rhythm or blues at all.
At least half of the 130-minute movie feels told in montage, which obviously does wonders for character development. There’s also historical ping-pong, bouncing for brief, ineffective beats on payola, race riots and a struggle for artistic integrity in the wake of disco. And romantic subplots between tertiary characters are as awkward in the film as they usually are in musicals onstage.
All of it feels like splatter marks by comparison to fine brushstrokes Condon applied to his script for 2002’s Chicago, a stunning combination of flash and focused storytelling in a musical film. This patchwork script needed another pass through, but Condon’s direction of Dreamgirls perhaps distracted him.
Elegant costumes and elaborate set pieces abound with little razzle-dazzle. It’s clear from the film’s first frame that most of its musical numbers have been edited mid-seizure with antsy camera pans and amateurish cuts.
Hudson, Beyonce Knowles and Anika Noni Rose star as Effie, Deena and Lorrell, soul-singing R&B darlings in Detroit known as the Dreamettes. Impatient for a big break, they’re performing at a talent show that precedes a set from rascally small-time star Jimmy “Thunder” Early (Murphy). Jimmy’s notorious adultery has sent his sultry singers packing at the last minute, and, with a full house waiting, he needs backup pronto.
Enter car salesman / promoter Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), who negotiates an on-the-fly gig for the Dreamettes as Jimmy’s new backup singers. “Backup is a trap,” notes Effie, the Dreamettes’ lead singer, who has a mouth and bones as big as her singing. If Effie only knew.
What begins as a joyously tight-knit circle of friends and family — which also includes Danny Glover as Early’s manager Marty and Kevin Robinson as Effie’s songwriting brother C.C. — is obliterated by love triangles, greed, artistic oppression, pregnancy, image-making and drug abuse.
The songs of Dreamgirls wisely sound like real R&B, not R&B filtered through a Broadway taffy machine, but that doesn’t mean many of them have memorable melodies. Nor does Condon keep his camera still long enough to show his actors’ expressions of insight into the lyrics’ pain and heartbreak — that is, when his actors bother to give that a try.
Foxx’s performance is all snake-charmer suavity, glowers and threats, and the only interesting things to watch are his decade-appropriate hairstyle changes. Robinson registers briefly as a tender singer-songwriter before disappearing into the plot. And Rose … oh, there were three Dreamettes?
Knowles has harped on and on about how much work she did to embody the “lead” role as Deena, a rail-thin beauty who supersedes Effie as front woman when their group becomes famous.
Well, if she says so.
If anyone really could tap into how fame, ego and image can buckle the bonds of a female R&B trio (ahem, Destiny’s Child), it’s her. Knowles belts her heart out, especially on “Listen” (a song written specifically for the film), but it all looks, and feels, like calibrated pop-star histrionics.
“Listen” is even more easily brushed aside after Hudson’s powerhouse plea, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Effie is so sassy that she can sell even a fake diss on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but she knows her rafters-rattling voice is her only real asset. When that’s taken away, Hudson launches into a torrent of wobbly walking, clenched fists and choked-back tears with enough power to carve her name on an Oscar trophy — deservedly so for this former American Idol contestant.
“Going” is unmatched by anything else, but Murphy tries both with “Steppin’ to the Bad Side” and “Jimmy’s Rap,” the latter delivered as a third-act slam to Curtis, who has held Jimmy back for years. Murphy is good, but not great; he’s hindered by unintentional laughs from wardrobe, hair and makeup. Still, Jimmy’s anger at having his songs and styles stolen is potent and powerful.
Just how one of those robberies happens is a laugh-out-loud touch, when Jimmy’s supposed breakthrough hit, “Cadillac Car,” is forever entombed as Pat Boone-style fluff. But it becomes clear that the same sort of sanitization and sterilization has been applied to this take on Dreamgirls. When it was scrubbed clean for a shiny glow, it took the soul right out of the story.