Few filmmakers have bona fides when it comes to movie musicals, but writer-director Bill Condon is one of them, having penned — and been Oscar-nominated for — the 2002 adaptation of smash-hit tuner “Chicago.” (He won the screenplay statuette in 1999 for his acclaimed biopic of gay director James Whale, “Gods and Monsters.”)
Now, following his 2004 film “Kinsey” about the famous sex researcher, Condon has ended 25 years of bigscreen musical anticipation with the film version of the girl-group Broadway classic “Dreamgirls.”
Dream cast features Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy and Beyonce Knowles. A tantalizing preview at Cannes started early speculation that a critical and commercial hit was coming, with a jam-packed industry screening at the Academy in mid-November unveiling a dazzlingly shot, energetic and musically popping evocation of the ’60s and ’70s era in soul music.
Already the talk is building around former “American Idol” contestant Jennifer Hudson — playing talented-but-sidelined belter Effie — as the year’s hottest new screen find, which should add to Condon’s reputation as an intelligent filmmaker the imprimatur of keen developer of movie talent.
GENESIS: “Having worked on ‘Chicago,’ it really whetted my appetite to take on another musical and get the chance to direct it. I was talking to producer Larry Mark, and he said, ‘Well, which one?’ And I said, ‘Dreamgirls,’ because it is the great unmade musical. David Geffen produced the Broadway show, and he’d held onto the rights for all these years, and I got him to agree to let me write the script. I think he felt the time was right.”
VISION: “It’s a story that deserved to be a movie, just so well-structured and conceived and beautifully written. Onstage it was a very abstract show, with no realistic setting. But because it did refer to something real, the Motown phenomenon, in film it could come to life in a different way.
“Then it all becomes about working the story through those songs and figuring out visually what information you’re going to show while people are singing. Because what you don’t want to have is 60 minutes of people just looking at somebody’s face singing.
“One place I really looked was the classic backstage musicals, the Vincente Minnelli movies, Stanley Donen, the Cukor of ‘A Star Is Born.’ It was a fine line we were all walking, certainly in the use of saturated color.
“The idea was not to get caught at being Minnelli. The trap for those of us who revere the golden age is you create a back lot world that’s not connected to reality. And ‘Dreamgirls’ would never work unless it felt real, so you’ve got the arching design, but wanting to feel gritty at the same time.”
CHALLENGES: “If people know nothing else about ‘Dreamgirls,’ they know that Jennifer Holliday sang ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’ and stopped the show. I knew that we could do everything right, but if we didn’t somehow stop the movie with that number, the rest wouldn’t matter. And for Jennifer Hudson, the line that defines Effie is: ‘I’ve got the voice, Curtis. I’ve got the voice.’ And that was certainly clear. It was a testament to her that she’s going toe to toe with Jamie Foxx, coming right off of ‘Ray,’ and holding her own. It was remarkable.”
MAGIC: “I’d hoped Eddie Murphy would transform himself (as James ‘Thunder’ Earley), and this is something we’d talked about at our first lunch. But when we shot the scene where his attempt to have a more relevant ‘What’s Going On?’-like sound in the 1970s is shot down by Jamie, I saw Eddie go to a place of despair I never expected him to do. You felt it. I remember that day feeling this is the great surprise of the movie.”
NEXT: “I don’t have a clue, because I’ve been so focused on this. I’ve got to start from scratch.”