Generally speaking, this critic has been woefully underwhelmed by latter-day screen adaptations of celebrated Broadway musicals. The primary problem with the genre has been that even as films, they still tend to look like stage productions, thereby failing to take advantage of the array of spatial, temporal, visual, aural and technical enhancements suddenly made available by the shift to the cinematic medium.
Therefore, it’s a very pleasant surprise to discover that Dreamgirls offers an experience which actually feels like you’re watching a movie, not merely a taped version of what you’ve already caught in the theater. Oscar-winner Bill Condon (for the script of Gods and Monsters) earns considerable kudos in this regard, since he not only directs, here, but wrote the screenplay based on the Tony award-winning play which opened to critical acclaim 25 years ago.
Condon assembled a most impressive cast for the project from top to bottom, including a number of marquee names capable of carrying a movie on their own, from Academy Award-winner Jamie Foxx to Grammy Award-winners Beyonce’ Knowles and Eddie Murphy to NAACP Image Award-winners Danny Glover and Jaleel “Urkel” White to Tony Award-winners Hinton Battle and Anika Noni Rose to Emmy-winner John Lithgow.
Ironically, praiseworthy performances by all of the above were easily overshadowed by the spellbinding debut of a relative unknown, an American Idol also-ran, in fact. No, not tone-deaf William Hung, but Jennifer Hudson, who came in seventh during the reality-TV series’ third season. You might remember her, because her surprising elimination from the contest had prompted guest judge Sir Elton John to speculate that racism must have played a part in the results of the voting.
That’s all water under the bridge now, because Hudson manages to upstage even Beyonce’ in Dreamgirls, bringing down the house as Effie Melody White, recreating the Tony-winning role originated on Broadway by Jennifer Holliday. The corpulent crowd-pleaser got a standing ovation during the screening I attended, this in response to her spirited rendition of, “And I Am Telling You.” Ostensibly inspired by the real-life story of The Supremes, this “Up from Nothing” saga, set in the Sixties, revolves around the trials and tribulations of the members of an all-girl singing group. Beyonce’ plays Deena Jones (aka Diana Ross), while Ms. Rose plays Lorrell Robinson (aka Mary Wilson), and Sharon Leal plays Effie’s eventual replacement Michelle Morris (aka Cindy Birdsong). The crib sheet of the storyline reads as follows: The Dreamettes, a promising trio trying to sing their way out of the slums of Detroit, are discovered by Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Foxx), a Cadillac dealer/fledgling manager who signs them as a back-up group for headliner James “Thunder” Early (Murphy). After touring on the Chitlin’ Circuit, the girls eventually hit the road on their own, seeking to generate crossover audience appeal as The Dreams, but not before full-figured Effie is pushed first out of the spotlight, then out of the group entirely, in favor of the slimmer, more appealing Deena.
The Dreams go on to fame and fortune sans Effie, though she ultimately exacts a measure of revenge by launching a successful solo career. What some might not know is that Effie died in the first version of the play, because the character had been carefully patterned after the ill-fated Flo Ballard. That Supreme, fired in 1967, spiraled down into depression and alcoholism before passing away prematurely while on welfare at the tender age of only 32.
Fortunately, the show’s producers abided by Jennifer Holliday’s request to put a positive spin on Effie’s exit from the mythical Dreams, and the rest is showbiz history. As a consequence, Dreamworks has a surefire hit on its hands, and Jennifer Hudson is the early favorite for an Academy Award. Expect additional Oscar buzz to swirl around others in the cast and crew, especially Eddie Murphy who enjoys his best outing since Shrek as a flamboyant composite James Brown and Marvin Gaye.
But make no mistake, this is Jennifer Hudson’s coming out party!
Excellent (4 stars)