A Review by Tom Condon, OP
(St. Martin Province)
Set in the turbulent early 1960s to mid-70s, Dreamgirls follows
the rise of a trio of women - Effie, Deena and Lorrell - who have
formed a promising girl group called The Dreamettes. At a talent
competition, they are discovered by an ambitious manager named Curtis
Taylor, Jr., who offers them the opportunity of a lifetime.
Dreamgirls, as most everyone knows, is a musical loosely based on
Motown record producer Barry Gordy and his creation of Diana Ross
and the Supremes. This film, written and directed by Bill Condon,
who also wrote the screenplay for the Oscar winning Chicago, was
the most anticipated film of the holiday season. Unfortunately, the
film is a disappointment. While it has its moments, it doesn’t
make a successful transfer from stage to screen. It’s hard
to say what happened. I think the main problem is that the most interesting
character, Effie White, is pushed aside halfway through the film
so that Deena Jones (the character based on Diana Ross) can take
over as lead singer. Curtis Taylor (the character based on Barry
Gordy) makes Deena the lead singer because she is more attractive
and has a voice that he thinks will appeal to a crossover audience.
Effie is more talented, but is heavier, more tempermental, and sings
in a more soulful voice than Deena. So, Curtis dismisses Effie from
the act, as well as from his lovelife, and replaces her with Deena.
In the scene, about halfway through the movie, in which Effie is
forced out, she sings a great song, “I’m Telling You
that I’m Not Going.” Newcomer Jennifer Hudson belts out
the song, full of shock, hurt, and anger, and she brings down the
house. The audience in the theater where I saw the film broke out
in spontaneous applause. I’ve heard that this reaction was
not an isolated event. It’s a great scene, similar to Barbra
Streisand belting out “My Man” at the end of Funny Girl.
Unfortunately, nothing else works nearly so well in the film.
Whereas the film, Chicago was all about cynicism and razzle-dazzle, Dreamgirls takes
itself very seriously. The many musical numbers come and go, but
they all start to blend together. Dreamgirls also tries
to chronicle the tumultuous decades of the 60’s and 70’s,
with images of Martin Luther King and riots in Detroit. Another recurring
theme is the prejudice in show business. Curtis is very limited in
his ability to sell records and book his acts. White audiences wouldn’t
accept most black entertainers. Curtis would eventually be very successful
marketing his carefully selected artists to a crossover audience.
But, his efforts come at a price both to himself and to his artists.
Dreamgirls is also about the seductiveness
of fame and money. This angle has been explored in
many other films, including recent films like Ray and Walk
the Line. We all know that show business success
can lead to substance abuse and can threaten family
life. Unfortunately, Dreamgirls sheds no new light
on this sad fact. I think this leads to another reason
the film is less successful than the Broadway musical.
When the Broadway show opened 25 years ago, the story
line was much more current than it is today. More people
had a curiosity about the Diana Ross/Barry Gordy story
than do today.
Still, Jennifer Hudson has a screen presence as Effie that Beyonce
Knowles, as Deena, lacks. The movie is worth seeing for her scenes.
I wish the rest of the film had been as compelling.
Tom Condon, OP
The film contains romantic complications including adultery, a child
born out of wedlock, crude language, some innuendo, mild profanity,
drug use and some onstage vulgarity. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting
classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association
of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material
may be inappropriate for children under 13.