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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Dreamgirls" (2006)

I almost always walk into a musical with a positive attitude. I want them to be good. As a lifelong movie and music fanatic, I’m never happier than when the two mediums merge together to form a perfect piece. I always try to champion a director who tries their hand at a musical, because it takes more courage to pull one off. Many of the most maligned movies of all time happen to be musicals. As we grow more cynical toward them, they become harder and harder to sell to an audience, and having such lame efforts as “Phantom of the Opera” and “Rent” doesn’t help matters.

Bill Condon’s “Dreamgirls” aspires to be bigger and better than 2002’s “Chicago,” which many people in Hollywood would claim to be the apex of recent musicals. The intent seems rather obvious. Fast editing, likable yet devious characters, greed, an historical context (the ‘60s and ‘70s) and a cast with somewhat obvious Oscar potential, “Dreamgirls” has everything a hopeful studio wants in a winter release. Unfortunately, what it doesn’t have is something to make it a truly memorable classic that will guarantee it a long shelf life beyond Oscar season.

What it has is a formula: Three aspiring soul singers get their start singing for an egotistical frontman, only to earn themselves fame and fortune beyond their years as back-ups. A falling-out occurs, the times-a-change, their music changes and drugs enter the scene, etc. A musical doesn’t necessarily have to get by on originality. It can be as simple as “Let’s put on a show,” like the old days with Mickey Rooney, and still work, but “Dreamgirls doesn’t have the lift or the energy necessary to drag it beyond the confines of its stale storyline.

As the three girls, Deena, Effie and Lorrell (Boyonce Knowels, Jennifer Hudson and Anika Nori Rose, respectively) do very good work and are a powerful singing trio. Hudson, in particular, stands out as a force not to be messed with. As the “ugly duckling” of the bunch, however, she of course, gets removed from her role as lead singer, which causes tension. Their super slick manager, Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), moves Deena into the lead as a way of better selling the band to the audience, but Effie doesn’t take kindly to Curtis’ efforts.

The one carrying most of the energy in this cast, without question, is Eddie Murphy as the likable, self-absorbed, bigger-than-life entertainer Jimmie Early, a hybrid of James Brown, Little Richard and Elvis. Jimmy Early recruits the three singers as his back-up, but once they find success on their own, Murphy’s character gets discarded for too long and the movie loses steam. Too bad, considering Murphy looks as though he’s been waiting for a role like this after spending too much time talking to animals and wearing fat suits (the upcoming “Norbit notwithstanding). He may be recycling from his days at Saturday Night Live, but he’s never looked happier and he hasn’t been this good since the first “Nutty Professor movie.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t center around him, but around the tepid drama that unfolds between the three singers and their manager. The characters have been written so blandly that there’s nothing to keep the movie afloat as it segues from one uninspired musical number to the next. Condon does manage to show that he knows how to shoot and cut together a high-energy musical number and the movie is not without its fun moments, but most of them occur within the first half-hour.

As a musical, it has two big problems: First, the movie doesn’t sell us on the idea of characters bursting into song until very late in the proceedings. The first musical numbers are sung on stage before an audience. For those of us uninitiated folk who have not seen the stage version, the first spontaneous musical number feels jarring and unnatural (and by that, I mean unnatural for a musical). The second problem has to do with its self-awareness of the music. The group’s manager always talks about finding a ”new sound,” but the movie itself never finds it. The songs seem to run together with the same production and the same format. The “new sound” will obviously be disco, but we never hear the sound of a genre evolving. We only hear the sound of Broadway, which may well be the antithesis of musical evolution.

With “Gods and Monsters” and “Kinsey,” Condon has proved he can depict important historical moments. With this, to a lesser extent, he has proven he can make a decent musical, but can’t seem to mesh the two things together. It feels like half of a good movie. It will likely garner some award buzz and will probably please the die-hard fans of the original stage musical, but I defy anyone to be able to hum a few notes from a single tune from this film after seeing it only once. Occasionally, it has a few good beats and occasionally I can dance to it. But only occasionally.

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