Reviewed by

Gwen Moore

Unless you’ve been vacationing on the moon you probably know that the long-awaited Dreamgirls, the movie version of the 1981 Tony-award winning Broadway musical, opened to critical praise and a healthy box office.  With a blockbuster cast, a breakout star, a thinly disguised (and deliciously familiar) story of the rise of a real-life legendary girl group, this movie couldn’t miss and it doesn’t. Jennifer Hudson, who for some unknown reason is called a “supporting” actress, has picked up her well-deserved Golden Globe statuette and is probably practicing her Oscar speech.  Likewise, Eddie Murphy, who heats up the screen in what critics are calling a career-reviving role. Neither Beyoncé Knowles nor Jamie Foxx is receiving the same high accolades, but probably no two talents are better suited for the roles of crafted diva and manipulative man on the make. Thanks to these towering talents, and of course the soulful, fast-moving score, reviewers are proclaiming the welcome return of the true movie musical, a genre long relegated to the cinematic graveyard.

The behind the scenes story of the Dreams begins in Detroit as a trio of talented, but unpolished young singers aspiring to stardom compete in a local talent show.  Effie (Jennifer Hudson) is the outsized lead singer with the talent, ego and hard will to match.  The other two-thirds of the trio, Deena (Beyoncé Knowles) and Lorrelle (Anika Noni Rose) are content to play second-fiddle to Effie.  Both are wide-eyed, sweet and unassuming. The unctuous Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx) immediately recognizes the group’s talents as well as their naiveté, and by hook and crook (mostly crook) he quickly insinuates himself into their lives and their careers.   As their self-anointed manager he finagles the three a gig as back-up singers for the James Brownesque soul singer James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy).  The very married Early sets his sights on Lorrelle, while Curtis, who is obviously drawn to Deena, aims

instead at Effie.  It is Effie, he correctly assesses, who is the dominant personality in the group.  To control the group he has to assuage Effie and he does so by becoming her lover.

Besides managing the Dreams, Taylor also wrests control of Early from his manager, Marty Madison (Danny Glover), and corrals the group’s talented songwriter, C.C. White (Keith Robinson), who is also Effie’s brother. Curtis has cross-over dreams and tries unsuccessfully to market Early, who is just a tad too soulful, to well-heeled white audiences.  While watching the blank faces of white patrons in an upscale supper club, Curtis realizes that the true cross-over stars are the Dreams.  He reinvents them putting the much slimmer, prettier and fairer Deena in the lead.  All three Dreams resist, but the smooth-talking Curtis has his way and the superstar Dreams are born.  Effie, however, cannot adjust to her second-class status in the group or in Curtis’s bed as his relationship with Deena becomes an open secret. She misses rehearsals, shows up late and is generally a pain.   Things come to head when Curtis fires Effie and replaces her with another slim beauty sure to be more palatable to mainstream audiences. Effie is crushed as Deena, Lorrelle and even C.C. side with Curtis. The moment we’ve all been waiting for occurs when Effie belts out “And I’m Telling You I’m not Going,” which as any fan of  Showtime at the Apollo knows has been mangled by more would-be Jennifer Holliday’s (the original Effie) than any other song in entertainment history. 

Notwithstanding her anthem, Effie does go.  The Dreams achieve international superstardom while Effie becomes a bitter and impoverished welfare mother, broke but still a diva (unbeknownst to Curtis he is the father of Effie’s child).  Curtis continues to mold Deena and micromanage her image and her career.  They marry, but Deena begins to chafe under his controlling and suffocating ways.  James “Thunder” Early, used and then abandoned by Curtis, makes a slow side into irrelevance and winds up dead of a heroin overdose.

Fast forward eight years later.  Marty is now managing Effie, C.C. has parted ways with Curtis and patched things up with Effie and Deena is moving toward breaking her husband’s svengali-like hold on her life.  Due to a number of circumstances that I won’t recount here, Deena, Effie, C.C. and Marty come together to give Curtis his comeuppance. He loses Deena and control of the Dreams with no hope of regaining either. In the end, Effie’s career is resurrected and the Dreams reunite for a rousing, crowd-pleasing farewell performance.  Curtis sits immobilized in the audience grudgingly watching the reconstituted Dreams surge to new heights.  It is the ending we expect, and like the audience in the movie, cheer. 

Dreamgirls lives up to all its buzz. Fans of the musical will not be disappointed with the film.  It hews closely to the original storyline and what it adds enhances the story.  All the performances are strong including Beyoncé, a true diva and superstar, who must be admired for stepping back and letting Jennifer Hudson shine. By doing so she turns in one of her best performances to date. In the end, Dreamgirls is an entertaining film with a surplus of talent. This is one movie a lot of us will be rooting for at Oscar time.

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