WFTB Score: 10/20
The plot: Singing trio The Dreamettes fight their way to stardom, earning their stripes by acting as backing singers to big name James ‘Thunder’ Early. But when their manager Curtis launches the group on their own, the decision to promote beautiful new lover Deena over the more powerfully-built and voiced Effie – his former beau – has far-reaching consequences for them all.
There’s nowt so curious as film fashion. By the end of the 20th Century film musicals were seen as guaranteed box office disasters, only for Moulin Rouge!, Chicago and Mamma Mia! to bring them firmly back into the limelight. Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls is based on a 1980s stage musical, little-known in Britain; but the story should ring many bells with those familiar with the stars of Motown.
The Dreamettes are: belting lead singer Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), shy beauty Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) and excitable young Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose); and while they wow the crowd at a Detroit talent show, car dealer and self-anointed Dreamettes manager Curtis Taylor Jr (Jamie Foxx) makes it his business to ensure they’re not quite good enough to win.
He then engineers a position for the Dreamettes behind R&B star James Early (Eddie Murphy), a rough and ready soul singer coming off the peak of his fame; Effie needs to be talked round as she finds merely ‘ooo’ing behind Early demeaning, but Lorrell has no such qualms and begins a relationship with the star even though he’s married. Whilst on tour, Curtis usurps the position of James’ manager Marty (Danny Glover) but his attempts to sell Early to a white audience in Miami prove disastrous; so, despite carrying on a relationship with the smitten Effie, Curtis sends the girls – now known simply as ‘The Dreams’ – out on their own with Deena as the lead singer.
Unsurprisingly, Effie is put out by this and not even the concerted efforts of her songwriting brother C.C. (Keith Washington) can keep her in the group; this suits Curtis fine, since he has a replacement standing by and a plan to propel Deena to superstardom, but unbeknownst to him there will always be a reminder of Curtis in Effie’s life as she struggles to forge her own career.
A musical drawing on the incredible catalogue of Motown songs sounds almost too good to be true, and in this case, at least, it is. For whilst Dreamgirls nicely captures the look of 60s Detroit and America’s difficult march towards racial equality during the period, the songs (written by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen) are a sometimes uneasy blend of Motown hooks and 80s musical styling, with the arrangements in particular more modern-sounding than you might expect. Many of the lyrics are hopelessly naïve, too (“We are a family/Like a giant tree”).
What’s more, there are simply far too many songs, many of which are completely unmemorable and poorly used to boot. The film starts off well, with the characters’ staged songs reflecting their actions and emotional states and spoken dialogue advancing the plot; but it later degenerates into a free-for-all with people singing or speaking in semi-random fashion: the quasi-recitative ‘It’s All Over’ is particularly lumpy, but luckily the excellent (if clumsily-titled) ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’ follows immediately afterwards.
The biggest problem with Dreamgirls, however, is that it badly lacks the soul you think the almost entirely African-American cast would bring to the party in coachloads. It’s true that Jennifer Hudson brings attitude and feeling to the role of Effie, and Eddie Murphy fitfully lights up the screen as he channels James Brown (the obvious inspiration, along with Marvin Gaye, for Early) in his increasingly erratic performances; but elsewhere the film is painfully bland, the characters’ stories little more than soap opera fodder, with totally predictable ups and downs and an ending that offers no surprises.
Knowles proves once again (after Goldmember) that she is a much better singer than she is an actress, and although Foxx is simultaneously suave and reprehensible there’s no real edge to his record mogul. Dreamgirls has obviously been shaped to receive a particular age rating and therefore cuts away from anything too graphic or difficult in respect of sex or drugs; by contrast, although the domestic violence of the Tina Turner film What’s Love Got to do With it? was uncomfortable, it rang much truer than the clean, relatively unmessy relationships portrayed here.
There are plenty of lesser issues – chiefly the cringe-making take-off of the Jacksons, but also John Lithgow’s extraordinary appearance as a weirdly-coiffed director – but I don’t want to give the impression that Dreamgirls is a bad film. As I say, Hudson and Murphy are both very good, and there’s a simple and direct pleasure to be had from two hours of song and dance: the climactic ‘One Night Only’ is a particular highlight. But Condon had the chance to make something raw, edgy and truly different by taking on this project, and it’s a real shame that instead of hunting out the soul of the story he played safe and filtered it for teenaged fans of Chicago the film, rather than the more adult sensibilities of fans of Chicago the musical.