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Set in the turbulent late 1960s and early
The spirit of Motown runs through the long-awaited film adaption of the Broadway musical
Dreamgirls, which centers around a young female singing trio who burst upon the music scene in the '60s, complete with bouffant hairdos, glitzy gowns, and a soul sound new to the white-bread American music charts. Sound familiar? You aren't the first one to draw comparisons to the meteoric rise of the Supremes, and despite any protests to the contrary, this is most definitely a thinly veiled reinterpretation of that success story. The Dreamettes--statuesque Deena (Beyonce Knowles), daffy Lorell (Anika Noni Rose) and brassy Effie (Jennifer Hudson)--are a girl group making the talent-show rounds when they're discovered by car salesman and aspiring music manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx). Sensing greatness (as well as a new marketing opportunity) Curtis signs the Dreamettes as backup singers for R&B star James Thunder Early (Eddie Murphy). But when Early's mercurial ways and singing style don't mesh with primarily white audiences, Curtis moves the newly-renamed Dreams to center stage--with Deena as lead singer in place of Effie. And that's not the only arena in which Effie is replaced, as Curtis abandons their love affair for a relationship with star-in-the-making Deena.
Besides the Supremes comparison, one can't talk about Dreamgirls now without revisiting its notorious Oscar snub; though it received eight nominations, the most for any film from 2006, it was shut out of the Best Picture and Director races entirely. Was the oversight justified? While Dreamgirls is certainly a handsomely mounted, lovingly executed and often vibrant film adaptation, it inspires more respect than passion, only getting under your skin during the musical numbers, which become more sporadic as the film goes on. Writer-director Bill Condon is definitely focused on recreating the Motown milieu (down to uncanny photographs of Knowles in full Diana Ross mode), he often forgets to flesh out his characters, who even on the Broadway stage were underwritten and relied on powerhouse performances to sell them to audiences. (Stage fans will also note that numerous songs are either truncated or dropped entirely from the film.) Condon has assembled a game cast, as Knowles does a canny riff on the essence of Diana Ross' glamour (as opposed to an all-out impersonation) and Rose makes a peripheral character surprisingly vibrant; only Foxx, who never gets to pour on the charisma, is miscast. Still, there are two things even the most cranky viewers will warm to in Dreamgirls: the performances of veteran Eddie Murphy and newcomer Jennifer Hudson. Murphy is all sly charm and dazzling energy as the devilish Early, who's part James Brown, part Little Richard, and all showman. And Hudson, an American Idol contestant who didn't even make the top three, makes an impressive debut as the larger-than-life Effie, whose voice matches her passions and stubbornness. Though she sometimes may seem too young for the role, Hudson nails the movie's signature song, And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going, with a breathtaking power that must be seen and heard to believe. And for those five minutes, if not more, you will be in Dreamgirls' thrall. --Mark Englehart