Finally. After “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Rent” and “The Producers” botched the transfer from stage to screen, “Dreamgirls” gets it right. Bill Condon’s adaptation of the 1981 show about a Motown trio’s climb to crossover stardom pulls off the fundamental double-act those three musical pics all missed: It stays true to the source material while standing on its own as a fully reimagined movie. Driven by tremendously exciting musical performances, the Par/DreamWorks release should sing loud and strong through awards season and beyond.
While it lost best musical in 1982 to “Nine,” the original Broadway production of “Dreamgirls” won six Tonys, ran for 1,521 perfs and returned director-choreographer Michael Bennett to the spotlight five years after “A Chorus Line.” Fittingly, Condon has dedicated the film to Bennett (who died of AIDS complications in 1987) and has echoed his original staging in savvy ways.
As he showed in his “Chicago” screenplay, Condon’s love of the movie musical is backed by an awareness of how tricky it is to make the genre work for film audiences no longer accustomed to characters spontaneously bursting into song.
In “Chicago,” the numbers evolved out of the characters’ fantasies. Here, the first few songs are performances anchored in narrative context. Condon reels the audience in before gradually embracing traditional musical presentation — first with brief, music-vid-style inserts during a montage and then with full-blown sung dialogue exchanges as the emotional stakes are raised. The mix not only blends seamlessly, it provides footing in the twin camps of movie musical and performance-based music biopic.
From the electric opening moments, the film establishes a highly energized, dynamic visual style. The dark screen is broken by quick flashes of color showing heels, skirts, hair and sashaying bodies at a 1962 Detroit talent contest.
Backstage, the Dreamettes — Effie (Jennifer Hudson), Deena (Beyonce Knowles) and Lorell (Anika Noni Rose) — prepare to go on. Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), an upstart wheeler-dealer, notices the girls and lands them a job singing backup for established star James Thunder Early (Eddie Murphy). Condon deftly weaves this chunk of character introduction and exposition around the Dreamettes’ sizzling performance of “Move.”
Expanding on the basic template of writer-lyricist Tom Eyen’s original book for the show, the script places the struggle of black performers against a background of racism, inequality and civil unrest. Adopting conventions of the classic showbiz pic without cliche, it examines the casualties and compromises of fame. The story’s principal focus, however, is family, tracing bonds of shared experience that are cemented, broken and healed.
Cadillac salesman Curtis aims to secure his own fame as a music producer by moving beyond R&B to conquer the pop charts. Elbowing Jimmy’s veteran manager Marty (Danny Glover) aside, Curtis books the singer into an upscale Miami club. Flamboyant Jimmy’s sexualized style scares the ultra-white crooner crowd but Curtis perceives a marketable commodity in the Dreamettes.
He makes them over as headliners, renaming them the Dreams. Going for a smoother look and sound, Curtis demotes zaftig Effie to backup, despite general acknowledgment she has the strongest pipes, and makes slimmer, more telegenic Deena the lead. This sets in motion the film’s central conflict and its most powerful emotional sparks.
Sidelined as lead singer and as Curtis’ lover, Effie grows increasingly resentful and temperamental, prompting her replacement in the group. Sung by Curtis, the three original Dreams, Effie’s songwriter brother C.C. (Keith Robinson) and replacement Michelle (Sharon Leal), the resulting confrontation, “It’s All Over,” is a dynamite sequence. Presented much as it was on stage, the complex number is cogent, dramatic and entirely unselfconscious in its pop-operatic language.
The emotional intensity is immediately pushed several notches higher with Hudson’s raw, devastating delivery of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” The anthem of proud desperation is forever linked to Jennifer Holliday’s defining original interpretation but Hudson makes it her own, singing it on a bare stage backed by mirrors in an explicit nod to Bennett.
An “American Idol” finalist without prior screen experience, Hudson comes fully-formed to film. It’s the kind of galvanizing perf that calls to mind debuts like Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl” or Bette Midler in “The Rose,” with a voice like the young Aretha. More fully developed here than onstage, Effie is the fierce, wounded, pulsating heart of the movie. Her big song and second explosive number “I Am Changing” both elicit audience cheers and applause.
Eyen’s story was loosely based on the Supremes. Diana Ross took over lead spot from original frontwoman Florence Ballard, who unlike Effie, died in poverty at age 32. The Diana-Deena parallel is even more evident here, with Knowles’ fashions, hairstyles and even sound mirroring various phases of Ross’ career.
Despite the further parallel of Beyonce’s emergence as the superstar soloist of Destiny’s Child, Deena does not monopolize the film. Chief concession to spreading the spotlight is Deena’s new powerhouse ballad, “Listen.”
After some non-starter film roles, Knowles has been superbly utilized here by Condon. As befits a character described at one point as “a product,” Deena is more manipulated than self-driven, but Knowles is poised, quietly determined and beautiful beyond belief, blossoming from innocent teenager to self-possessed star.
Playing a ruthless shark with shades of Berry Gordy Jr. and Ike Turner, Foxx seems to be holding back. His natural charisma is dimmed beneath Curtis’ cool slickness and he looks uncomfortable in musical numbers.
Murphy, however, is a revelation. Mixing up James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Jackie Wilson and some of his own wiseass persona, his Jimmy leaps off the screen both in his scorching numbers (his proto-rap is a killer) and dialogue scenes. It’s his best screen work.
The character has been given a markedly different arc here, taking Murphy from hilarious and sexy to soulful and broken. Jimmy gets another of the film’s strong new compositions in the social protest song “Patience.” Murphy’s dead-eyed stare and subsequent reaction after Curtis nixes the release is among the film’s most piercing moments.
There’s fine supporting work from Glover, Robinson and especially Rose, a bewitching stage performer (“Caroline, or Change”) who shows equal assurance on film and terrific comic instincts.
While her role has been downsized, the only significant loss is Lorell’s angry “Ain’t No Party” rant, one of composer Henry Krieger’s better songs. Loretta Devine, the original Broadway Lorell, also makes an appearance singing “I Miss You Old Friend.”
There are some narrative ellipses that were unclear in the stage show and remain so — Curtis’ mob connections and legal hot water are dealt with too perfunctorily — and Condon makes an odd choice in cutting mid-conversation to Deena and Effie’s reconciliation after years of bitter silence. Not sharing their encounter from the start undersells a key emotional moment. But the storytelling overall is smooth and confident.
It was a brilliant stroke to have Broadway vets Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer light the performance scenes, the dazzling execution enhanced by Tobias A. Schliessler’s swooping, circling camera. In the title number in particular, in which the trio members emerge as restyled stars, the widescreen camerawork is luscious, picking up an elbow-length glove, a fishtail skirt, an elegant choreographic move. And the trend toward machine-gun editing is refreshingly resisted by Virginia Katz, who creates a rhythm both kinetic and graceful.
The film drips glamour and vibrant color thanks to Sharen Davis’ glitzy costumes and John Myhre’s detailed production design. Matching Condon’s achievement in marrying naturalistic showbiz drama with old-fashioned musical, the
retro stylings of both sets and costumes expertly brush period-specific reality with subtle touches of fantasy.