There is a moment in Bill Condon’s new musical, Dreamgirls, where it feels like it just can’t possibly be more dazzling. As the film’s talented but non-commercial Effie (Jennifer Hudson) gets pushed into the background, and as the Dreamgirls emerge in their resplendent glory, so does the film vibrate with beauty and color and life. Into one of the more bleak cinematic landscapes we’ve seen in recent years, Dreamgirls is here to brighten our world.
Condon, who wrote Chicago and directed Gods and Monsters and Kinsey, helmed a musical for the first time. He makes the genre change effortlessly, keeping the music alive while telling the story. Sure, there was the Dreamgirls stage musical that almost everyone knows. And there’s Motown, Diana Ross and the Supremes and all of that – somehow, though, Condon’s Dreamgirls manages to find its own way – to reinvent the characters through clever casting choices.
Top to bottom, the film is well-cast, starting with Beyonce Knowles as Deena, the prettier of the girl group on its way to fame and success. Knowles seems born to play the part – a gorgeous specimen of womanhood who can sing and dance and looks great in anything from any angle. But Knowles brings an unexpected vulnerability to the part without ever overdoing it.
Indeed, Knowles is being groomed to be an everything star – she can do it all. She can sing, act, dance. She also happens to be the more successful of a three-girl singing group, Destiny’s Child. For all of that, though, Knowles takes her part seriously and is clearly up to the challenge.
Unless you live on Mars, you’ve no doubt heard all of the buzz surrounding Jennifer Hudson’s debut as Effie. Tough shoes to fill, no doubt. And Hudson can belt the songs out like no other. Anyone who watched her on American Idol knows what she can do. You still might not be prepared for the level of greatness Hudson achieves. She may not be a pop star ready but a musical star is born.
Hudson’s past on American Idol doesn’t seem to be holding her back. If you’re good enough no one pays attention to how you got where you are. You’re just there and that’s all that matters. Hudson manages the film’s most difficult songs by biting right into them. It never seems to occur to her that she wouldn’t be able to do it.
The real surprise, though, is Eddie Murphy. With a career of ups and downs, Murphy has never gotten any real credit for being so versatile. His publicity around Dreamgirls has been muted, as if he dare not even “go there” in terms of critical success. Murphy is on fire in the film as Jimmy Early, a womanizing, hard-drinking, drug using up and coming, then declining star. He represents that thing they had to take out of soul music to make it popular to white people. But whatever it is, it will destroy Early before he is ready to get rid of it.
More than anything, Dreamgirls is a dazzling ride. There’s just something about watching these three girls (Anika Noni Rose stars as the third) burn up the dance floor in their glittery dresses. Even tragic Effie, whose talent couldn’t be packaged and sold, comes along and sings the living bejesus out of it. Singers like this, songs like this, performances like this aren’t what we’re used to seeing anymore. Funny, in musicals lately we have no problem watching actors do their best to sing – Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge and Renee Zellweger in Chicago. But how spirit-cleansing to actually hear how it’s supposed to be done.