Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

It has been a long time since anyone burst into song in the middle of a conversation. Some say that the absurdity of such behaviour killed the film musical and it must have taken courage for Bill Condon to bring it back.

Risks have been taken all down the line in this first copper-bottomed musical since… Chicago (Condon wrote the script for that, too). The part of Effie Smith, the most powerful personality, with the strongest voice, in the newly formed, all-girl trio, The Dreamettes, was given to Jennifer Hudson, who only squeezed into the final of the third American Idol on a wild card before being voted off and had never acted before in front of a camera. Also, the pivotal role of Jimmy Early, a star of the black R&B clubs, was offered to Eddie Murphy, whose track record is quick-quipped action (Beverly Hills Cop) and family comedies (Dr Doolittle). He can walk the walk, but can he sing the sing?

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As it turns out, these two steal the show. Hudson’s emotional range is breathtaking – no one is going to escape Dreamgirls dry eyed – and her voice is in Aretha Franklin’s class of soulful, blues-tinged rock. As for Murphy, he’s a natural. Actually, he’s better than natural. On stage, he makes Chuck Berry look slow and does an electrifying imitation of James Brown, circa 1958. In the dramatic scenes, he avoids his trademark quirks, even keeps Eddie’s flash smile zipped, staying strictly in character, as Jimmy’s selfish, addictive nature alienates his friends and long-time lover Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose).

Essentially, this is the story of The Supremes and the rise of Motown Records in Detroit in the Sixties, from Berry Gordy Jr’s beginnings in a second-hand car dealership to Diana Ross’s final departure. In the film, The Dreamettes become The Dreams, Gordy is called Curtis Taylor Jr (Jamie Foxx) and, after Effie is dumped in favour of the more photogenic Donna Jones (Beyonce Knowles), the crossover for a black group into the pop charts is successfully manipulated, thanks to payola and other dubious transactions.

Not a biopic, like Ray or What’s Love Got To Do With It, Dreamgirls is all music, with snatches of storyline between the numbers. Although the choreography, beautifully performed by Beyonce, Rose and Sharon Leal (Michelle), who comes in after Curtis decides to replace Effie with Donna as lead, is pure Supremes, the songs are less obviously a pastiche of Motown and Foxx plays Curtis with a quiet dignity, despite being ruthless in his pursuit of success (money), heartless over Effie’s love for him and cruelly possessive of Donna.

This was the period of revolution, Amerika, Black Panthers, ghetto riots, civil rights demos, death in the streets and a politicized youth angry about lynchings and Vietnam. It was also the period of The Beatles, Phil Spector and white bands playing black music. Condon touches briefly on these social upheavals, but remains, for the most part, on or back stage.

Dreamgirls has the passion, the moves, the rhythm and the sex appeal, as well as the curse and casualties of fame. If it is too long, it can be forgiven for resurrecting a lost art, that of the film musical.

“If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’,” Curtis says, when he first meets Effie and wants to sign her up.

Well, he lied plenty and died none. In the music biz, it’s the sounds, not the sensibilities, that need protecting. Condon takes care of both, with irresistible style and affection. And he’s a white man.

Reviewed on: 01 Feb 2007
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A fictionalised, all singing, all dancing biopic of The Supremes and the rise of Motown Records.
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Chris ***1/2

Director: Bill Condon

Writer: Bill Condon, based on the book byTom Eyen

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover, Jennifer Hudson, Anika Noni Rose, Keith Robinson, Sharon Leal, Hinton Battle, Mariah I Wilson, Yvette Cason

Year: 2006

Runtime: 131 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


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