Dreamgirls: Showstopper Edition
May 4, 2007
Based on the hit Broadway musical of the same name, Dreamgirls (2006) made the successful jump to the big screen with a big name cast that included the likes of Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles and Eddie Murphy. The film charts the rise of the Dreamettes (later changed to simply the Dreams) – Deena (Knowles), Effie (Hudson) and Lorrell (Noni Rose) – from their humble beginnings as back-up singers for dynamic performer James “Thunder” Early (Murphy brilliant evoking James Brown) to their ascension as a popular headlining act thanks to the guidance of shrewd manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Foxx). We see the relationship between the three women develop over the years. Deena and Effie end up taking wildly divergent paths in their lives. Curtis manipulates and orchestrates Deena’s career into a profitable enterprise that lacks feeling. Effie refuses to be controlled by him and quits the business in order to live life on her own terms.
Set in 1960s Detroit, the birthplace of Motown, it was an exciting time for music with some of the best rhythm & blues, jazz and blues songs coming out of this decade. Dreamgirls does a great job of conveying the energy and excitement of music that was considered too racy by white radio stations. As a result, white musicians would record their own bland versions and sell tons of records – much to the chagrin of the original black artists. The attention to period detail, including the vintage cars, clothes and hairstyles, is beautifully recreated, taking us back instantly to a different time and place.
Director Bill Condon establishes a breakneck pace with wall-to-wall music and never looks back. At times, the film’s pacing almost feels too brisk with very few lulls for us to catch our breath and get to know these characters. It feels like Dreamgirls wants to cut loose and be a full-blown musical but is initially harnessed by the realism of the biopic. Perhaps the filmmakers were wary of repeating the daring approach of Kevin Spacey’s Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea (2004) which tried and failed. However, 45 minutes in, Dreamgirls finally throws off the shackles of the traditional biopic and has the characters break spontaneously into song when Curtis decides to have Deena front the Dreams because of her stunning looks instead of Effie with her much stronger voice but stockier build. The musical component kicks in only during the scenes that feature conflict between two or more characters. It’s as if the emotions that they are feeling are so strong that they can only be expressed through song.
The cast is uniformly excellent with singers Beyonce Knowles and American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson proving that they have the dramatic chops in addition to their incredible singing ability. This is evident in the scenes where their characters have a falling out over the love for the same man and Effie feels as if she’s constantly being overshadowed by Deena. Academy Award winning Hudson demonstrates incredible skill as a singer with several show-stopping moments with her emotional voice that emits incredible power and feeling.
Jamie Foxx turns in another solid performance as the Dreams’ slick, Svengali-like manager who ends up driving a wedge between Deena and Effie. Eddie Murphy is a revelation as the womanizing James Early. He’s not afraid to play an abrasive character (and still make him seem charming) but more importantly demonstrates a great singing voice that eradicates any vestiges of his crappy 1980s music “career.” He should take a break from mindless family comedies for awhile and do more films like this one as he exhibits an impressive range.
Dreamgirls shows the conflict between art and commerce and how problems of race and politics were viewed as uncommercial. In the ‘60s, black acts worked hard to break through racist attitudes. In the 1970s, musicians wanted to address the political climate and met with resistance from record labels that only wanted radio-friendly music because they thought that that was what people wanted. There was a constant push-pull conflict as some musicians struggled with watering down their music for the masses or remaining true to who they were and where they came from. Dreamgirls is a beautifully made musical featuring great music and engaging performances proving that Chicago (2002) was no fluke for Condon.
The first disc includes 12 extended musical numbers that allows you to see them in their entirety which is a great option considering how important the music is and also how it is presented.
Also included is a music video for “Listen” by Beyonce Knowles. If you weren’t tired of seeing this video all over MTV, here it is for you to enjoy again and again.
The second disc starts of with an impressive, nearly two-hour documentary entitled, “Building the Dream.” Writer/director Bill Condon saw its original run on Broadway and loved it but had no notion at the time to make it into a movie. Over the years, there were several attempts to adapt it to the big screen but they all fell apart for various reasons. After the success of adapting Chicago, Condon wanted to tackle Dreamgirls and managed to convince David Geffen who owned the rights. This doc takes us through the casting, production design, choreography, the music and so on in fascinating detail with all of the major cast and crew members interviewed.
“Dream Logic: Film Editing” takes a brief look at the editing process. The editor had to go through miles and miles of footage and put together a coherent movie – a very daunting task to say the least.
“Dressing the Dreams: Costume Design” examines the gorgeous period outfits that were created for the film. The designer talks about her influences and how she created the look for each character.
“Center Stage: Theatrical Lighting” takes a look at how the night club and theater scenes were lit in an authentic way that would be done back in the day. They also used lighting to help tell the dramatic arc of each character.
“Auditions and Screen Tests” features footage of Beyonce and Anika Noni Rose trying out along with Fatima Robinson’s choreography audition. It’s amazing to see how well Beyonce was in these early stages – of course, she had her own personal team to help prepare her.
There are seven “Previsualization Sequences” that allows you to see the storyboards juxtaposed with rehearsal footage and audio from the movie.
Finally, there is an image gallery for storyboards, costume designs, production designs and, best of all, mock-up album covers and advertisements for various characters.