DVD Review: Dreamgirls (Two-Disc Showstopper Edition)
By Frankie Dees Apr 27, 2007, 14:41 GMT
Director Bill Condon brings Tom Eyen\'s Tony award-winning Broadway musical to the big screen in a tale of dreams, stardom, and the high cost of success in the cutthroat recording industry. The time is the 1960s, and singers Effie (Jennifer Hudson), Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose), and Deena (Beyoncé Knowles) are about to find out just what it\'s like to have their wildest dreams come true. Discovered at a local talent ...more
Bill Condon’s ‘Dreamgirls,’ an adaptation of the 1981 Broadway musical about a Supremes-like trio vying for crossover success in the late 60s/early 70s, arrives on DVD in a packed 2-disc “showstopper” edition with enormous buzz, a thriving theatrical run and numerous award wins and nominations in tow.
With the triumphant reemergence of musicals with to “Moulin Rouge” and “Chicago” the genre stumbled with uneven commercial disappointments “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Rent” and “The Producers.” With “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Rent,” the problem seemed to lie with some big film directors, Joel Schumacher and Chris Columbus respectively, being fans of the material but apparently not having a real connection to it. The result was top-of-the-line production values drowning in emotional disconnection to the characters. “The Producers” was just plain tired by the time it made it to theaters – a film adaptation of a musical adaptation of an older film….whaa?
So when it came time to make “Dreamgirls” which has had a start-and-stop film adapt history since its Broadway debut with incarnations falling through that included Whitney Houston in the Deena role, and a Joel Schumacher-helmed version with Lauryn Hill as Deena (thank god Schumacher didn’t get his troublesome mitts on this), the producers of ‘Chicago’ went to their screenwriter Bill Condon fresh off his success with “Chicago.” Condon (director of “Kinsey,” “Gods and Monsters,” and, ahem, “Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh”) who was always a big fan of ‘Dreamgirls’ and always considered it a dream project, was quick to accept.
The original musical “Dreamgirls” lost the best musical Tony in 1982 to “Nine” but ran for 1,521 performances and marked a return for choreographer Michael Bennett years after “A Chorus Line.” Condon dedicated his adapt to Bennett (who died of AIDS in 1987) and was able to display some savoir-faire in remaining faithful to Bennett’s original choreography.
The opening of the film establishes the tone right away. Quick cuts and flashes of the glitz and glamour, heels and dresses of a talent contest in Detroit in 1962. Dark and metallic colors make up the color palette to give it a clever sheen of Detroit come to life – a palette that remains constant throughout. This is where we first meet the Dreamettes – the outspoken, proud lead singer Effie (“American Idol” reject Jennifer Hudson) shaped like a “real woman”, soft-spoken “tiny bird” Deena (Beyonce Knowles) and Lorell (Anika Noni Rose), whom one look at the actresses’ name will tell us that this character is delegated to the sidelines.
They talk their way on stage where they get noticed by Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a smooth-talking wheeler-dealer type who offers them the chance to sing back-up for James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy). Effie, at first refuses, knowing they deserve better than to sing back-up, but Curtis lays on the charm & promises and gets them to commit to a tour.
The film deftly acquaints the audiences to the music through stage performances in the context of the film first, and then slowly allows the traditional musical roots to show to a by-then comfortable audience where characters can fully belt out sung dialogue. The film is an amalgam of music-based biopics like “Lady Sings the Blues” with the more traditional “Chicago.”
Taylor Jr., a Cadillac salesman by day, wishes to be a viable music producer by any means necessary. Not happy with the relatively low-profile R&B charts, he wants to try and take over the pop charts as well. Enticing Jimmy with an upscale Miami gig, Taylor Jr. manages to steer him away from his long-time manager Marty (Danny Glover) who thinks the white-skinned big leagues are still out of reach. The sultry, sexy gyrations of Jimmy Early prove too much for the uptight white audience, but Taylor apparently sees a place for The Dreamettes…with one caveat.
The heavier Effie must hit backup while the skinny, more photogenic Deena takes the lead. Everyone knows Effie has the stronger vocals but Effie reluctantly agrees under the impression it would be temporary. Yet, she grows increasingly resentful as it’s clear that not only did she get pushed to the sidelines as a singer but as Curtis’ lover as well. This, of course, becomes the films central conflict and leads to the breakout number confrontation. Coming in to rehearse, she finds Michelle (Sharon Leal) in her place. Along with Curtis and Effie’s brother C.C. (Keith Robinson) who writes the songs, the new ‘Dreams’ break the bad news to her in the form of “It’s All Over.”
A great number, it switches between all the players with ferocity as they sashay around Effie singing out the reasons why they’ve all had enough. A nasty, emotional gut-punch…Curtis and Effie are the only ones left on the mirror-surrounded bare stage. The sung response by Effie and her big second number “I Am Changing” is what garnered Jennifer Hudson the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. A moving, poignant delivery of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” straight into Curtis’ face is unwavering. Hudson proves to be a natural performer with a depth that belies her age.
The year’s progress and indeed, The Dreams have become a pop sensation under the suffocating guidance of Curtis. That Deena was a thinly-veiled Diana Ross is common knowledge and The Dreams follow the same pattern of The Supremes throughout the various phases of the music business up to Disco. When Curtis becomes more and more power-hungry and sees that Effie has gotten herself back into the music business with the help of Jimmy’s old manager Marty, Curtis goes to great lengths to bury her again, but this time she doesn’t go down as easily…
There’s no mistake that the moderate success of the film rides on the shoulders of Jennifer Hudson. A powerful voice reminiscent of Aretha Franklin, she’s generally able to overpower her scenes with pure attitude. It’s a rare film debut that attains an Oscar. Beyonce is expectedly more hit and miss. Condon is able to utilize her to the film’s needs i.e. gorgeous and charismatic but whenever any emotional depth is needed, she falls slightly short.
Jamie Foxx also seems strangely disconnected with the material - not fully understanding the Ike Turnerish of the role (without the physical abuse), or maybe not wanting to, a lot of his more dramatic scenes remain decidedly earthbound when they should soar. Even when the script calls for Foxx to use his natural charm, it feels rather forced.
Eddie Murphy does some good work but I’m guessing most will wonder what all the fuss was about. His loud, obnoxious Jimmy (an amalgam of James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson) is a play on his cocky persona that we all know and love from early in his career. His numbers have verve and soul but nothing we haven’t seen before from him in other forms. The plaudits come late in the game with an admittedly great scene when Curtis debunks a song performance from Jimmy which he thinks will get him back in the limelight - a devastating scene that consists only of a pointed stare and yet remains Murphy’s best dramatic effort to date.
Non-showy supporting work is solid with Glover, Rose and Robinson all knowing their place in the film. Besides a few successful performances, the film also shines with great technical craftsmanship. John Myhre’s production design does a great job of combining the stylized universe of a musical with a gritty realism of period Motown. From Broadway, they bring in Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer to light the numbers with vibrant camerawork by Tobias Schliessler. The glitz of the various period fashions is perfectly captured by Sharen Davis which proves flattering for all involved.
The film certainly looks and sounds great but I found it merely passable as an overall movie. It’s a curiously muted narrative that doesn’t generate much thrill or passion outside of a few choice musical numbers. The film expands on Tom Even’s original Broadway production book by placing the action in the midst of race riots and civil unrest but these scenes feel almost an afterthought, added to maybe manipulate the audience into emotionally responding a little more to the film.
The film is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and is enhanced for widescreen televisions. The exhausting extras are formidable and are spread across the 2-disc set. People hesitant of a double-dip need not worry; I can’t imagine anything else being dug up pertaining to the film. On the first disc we find ‘12 extended versions of performances from the movie’ - which basically consist of the musical numbers in the film shown in their entirety without cuts. It is a nice option for fans. Included in the twelve is a ‘Jennifer Hudson performance not seen in theaters,’ which is a short duet between Effie and her brother C.C. Then there is a ‘promotional music video’ for the Beyonce track “Listen.” This all runs about 45 minutes. And we end on some previews for ‘Shrek 3’ and, ahem, ‘Norbit.’
On Disc 2, we start off with the full-length documentary ‘Building the Dream’ - a very comprehensive detailing of the film starting with the origins of the musical and its legacy and then moving onto Condon, how he got involved and then the production of the film itself. While there is nothing particularly scathing or surprising here, it’s an extremely well-done feature that’s also broken down into nine different sections for those of you with commitment issues.
There is some ‘Behind the scenes footage’ from ‘Building the Dream’ in full-form here. There are some shorter technical featurettes focusing on particular aspects of the film. ‘Dream Logic: Film Editing’ shows the enormous amount of work in editing such a film; ‘Dressing the Dreams: Costume’ have scenes from the film compared to costume sketches with the designer explaining her choices; ‘Center Stage: Theatrical Lighting’ covers the chore of lighting this behemoth.
We also have seven ‘Previsualization sequences’ which show storyboards and rehearsals edited together to provide a template for how the scene should go once on set. Comprehensive ‘Image galleries’ include storyboards for several sequences, costume and productions designs, and period poster and album props used in the film.
Most of the players are given time to shine, if not consistently, but Jennifer Hudson as Effie provides a veritable auspicious debut. Its clear Condon loves the material and the music ranges from passable (most) to great (few) but the adaptation proves unexciting for the most part.
A film with its footing in Rhythm and Blues and Heart and Soul should have heavy helpings of both, but with Hudson only providing the heart and Murphy the Soul, the film comes up as simply okay.
Dreamgirls (Two-Disc Showstopper Edition) is now available for pre-order at Amazon for a May 1st release. It is available at for pre-order at AmazonUK for a June 4th release. Visit the DVD database for more information.