A telling moment comes early in the big-screen version of Dreamgirls: a local talent revue at the Detroit Theatre pits energetic, nervous R&B acts against a vaguely familiar panel of three judges. Yup, this is American Idol's world, and you're just living in it. Writer-director Bill Condon doesn't seem the least bit nervous in bringing the stage musical roaring to the screen, but I can certify that, like Chicago (which Condon adapted for director Rob Marshall), Dreamgirls is a whirling dervish of energy.
Musical theatre fans are divided on the importance of this pastiche of Diana Ross and the Supremes, and certainly composer Henry Krieger and book author/lyricist Tom Eyen have yet to become household names. Perhaps that's because the score is uneven and the story and characters sorely underdeveloped, leaving us to fill in the gaps and take a lot on faith. In Condon's hands, it plays sort of like a full-color version of Citizen Kane's "News on the March" newsreel spoof, if it went on recklessly to leapfrog decades instead of developing a highly disciplined narrative.
Here, Diana is Deena and the Supremes the Dreams. Working their way from the talent revue to backup singers (as the Dreamettes) for James "Thunder" Early to pop stars in the own right, the Dreams waggle their breasts, shake their fingers, and sing their hearts out. Effie (Jennifer Hudson), Deena (Knowles), and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) also fall prey to the usual show-biz pitfalls: ego clashes, questionable on-the-job romances, and general in-fighting. Spirited Effie proves too spirited for her own good, with pride before her fall: sidelined in favor of the svelter Deena, the spurned Effie becomes more of a hassle than an asset (the subsequent telling of Effie's misfortune typifies the film's sketchy plot).
For good measure, Dreamgirls notes the drug-laced decline of Early (Eddie Murphy), who starts out a wiggling, hip-thrusting James Brown type and winds up a heroin-shooting Marvin Gaye type (the "What's Goin' On" pastiche "Patience" misremembers Gaye's poetic rallying cries for peace as awkward, patronizing pleas like "Patience, patience...It's gonna take time"). Murphy goes for the gusto, but since his character is a happy Dionysian one moment and a dour, sideburned druggie the next, we reasonably wonder how he's spent the intervening years. We can guess, but a drama should, after all, dramatize instead of rolling a highlight reel.
Among the other underserved characters (despite the 131-minute running time): Effie's songwriter brother C.C. (Keith Robinson), ambitious singer Michelle Morris (Sharon Leal), talent manager Marty Madison (Danny Glover), and car-salesman-turned-impresario Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx). All serve their roles just fine (and a substantial screen role for Glover is especially welcome), the standouts are grin-flashing Murphy, reminding us yet again of his consummate showmanship, and Hudson, an American Idol vet whose screen debut blows the roof off the joint.
Ultimately, the sound and fury signify nothing we haven't heard before about pride, betrayal, art versus commerce, and emotional show-biz rollercoasters. The messages are alternately muddled or pat (the song titles predict their simplicity: "Love You I Do," "It's All Over," "I Am Changing"). The worst offender is "Family," which negates any show-biz savvy by having the girls sing sincerely to Effie, "It's more than you/It is more than me/Whatever dreams we have/They're for the family...Like a giant tree branching out towards the sky...", as if Effie will say, "Oh, yeah, giant tree branches. You're right: forget my emotional and creative needs, sistahs." At least the predictable reprise acknowledges the sappy lyrics' broken spell.
Despite Dreamgirls' many deficiencies, there's much fun to be had in among the fits and starts: Murphy and Hudson both nail their show-stopping numbers ("Steppin' to the Bad Side" and "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," respectively), and the film's freight-train horsepower may effectively make narrative construction irrelevant. If you can be satisfied skipping along its surface, Dreamgirls fulfills its splashy, superficial promise of glitter, glamour, and sass.