Monday, December 25, 2006

'Dreamgirls' Has Motown Glitter, Guts: Opening December 25 Around the Nation

'Dreamgirls' has Motown glitter, guts

December 22, 2006

Anika Noni Rose as Lorrell, Beyoncé Knowles as Deena and Jennifer Hudson as Effie take the spotlight in "Dreamgirls."

out of four stars
Rated PG-13; language, sexual situations
2 hours, 10 minutes
Opens Dec. 25

The Michael Bennett musical "Dreamgirls" electrified Broadway 25 years ago, garnering ecstatic reviews, six Tony Awards (though it lost the best-musical statuette to "Nine") and, most significantly, audiences of every age, race and opinion about Broadway musicals.

"Dreamgirls" the play wasn't a backstage musical. The movie version -- which stars Beyoncé Knowles as Deena, the Diana Ross character; "American Idol" competitor Jennifer Hudson as shunted-aside Effie, based on Florence Ballard; Anika Noni Rose as Mary Wilson-like Lorrell; Jamie Foxx as Berry Gordy-esque Curtis Taylor Jr., and Eddie Murphy as an old-school soul singer representing what Motown would replace -- gets that.

And for its first half, it rebottles the play's electricity.

While everyone knew Bennett had been inspired by the Supremes and their Motown mentor, Berry Gordy Jr., everyone was at pains to point out it wasn't reality, because Gordy and Co. were understandably protective of one of the great inspirational fables of our time.

We are told the film is not about Motown, yet in its second half, it is so specific -- replicating musical arrangements, wigs, gowns and album covers -- that no one is likely to miss the point. Though all we see of the real thing are the usual skyscape and the Brewster Projects (the rest was filmed in Los Angeles), "Dreamgirls" is all Detroit, and Condon has tied the story to its times; the riots, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the racial divide all become characters.

Yet the movie remains best when it focuses on the personal. The Dreamettes are sisters of the skin, innocent and malleable. Car dealer Curtis Taylor Jr., trying to break into the music business, recognizes their teenage appeal and hires them to sing backup for his act, James (Thunder) Early (Murphy). In the play, he was modeled on the dynamic entertainer Jackie Wilson, who was Gordy's entrée into the business. Murphy has added pieces of Wilson Pickett and James Brown, and makes Early into a more recognizable old face of soulful R&B.

Deena is reluctantly moved up front, and the group is now ready not just for the clubs and the chitlin circuit, but the Copacabana, "The Ed Sullivan Show," the top of the pop -- i.e. white -- charts.

The songs that propel this story are mostly all preserved, but new ones have been added, songs that are less of the stage and more of the moment, and they fit nicely with the original score.

But the play was really about Effie, while the film is about Deena's struggle as well, when she discovers that she, too, has been used and abused by Curtis' ambitions. So she, too, gets a song of strength and defiance, titled "Listen." And though Effie does make a brief return in the film's second half, it's now more about Deena and Curtis, who in this version is more clearly a villain, removing the dynamic that made the play so enthralling and real.

There were no heroes and villains, only flawed people making decisions that affect each other.

Condon has gotten terrific performances from almost everyone here. Knowles lives up to the promise she's shown in her earlier big-screen warm-ups. And Hudson proves to be as good in her dramatic scenes as she is in the musical ones.

Murphy, his character now elevated to the conscience of the story, gives the best performance of his career. Only Foxx seems one-dimensional, and maybe that's because of the way the role has been restyled, but it throws off the rhythm, and when he steps into the spotlight for his musical numbers, the energy seems to evaporate.

"Dreamgirls" also looks great. The lighting is gorgeous, the choreography, while minimal compared to "Chicago," is exciting and the production numbers are thoughtfully, elegantly staged.

Like Curtis, "Dreamgirls" goes for it all, and for a magical time, gets it.

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