KPBS AIRDATE: January 05, 2007
Taking a musical from stage to screen is always a major challenge. But “Dreamgirls” has a truckload of extra baggage. First, of course, there’s the comparison to the original 1981 stage musical, which won six Tony Awards and ran for more than 1500 performances on Broadway. In brief: more glitz, less grit. Then, there’s the source material, the meteoric rise of Diana Ross and the Supremes and Motown’s Berry Gordy. In the show, it’s Deena and The Dreams, and the manipulator is the slimy opportunist Curtis Taylor, Jr. But the movie underplays the extreme difficulty of black crossover from R&B into mainstream pop, instead highlighting the familiar rollercoaster ride of fame –- pride, ego, drugs and that pesky conflict between art and commerce. In the fictional version, the oversized, temperamental vocal powerhouse, who’s replaced by the slim, telegenic backup girl, goes on to have a successful career of her own. In real life, Florence Ballard, the plus-sized Supreme, died in poverty at age 32. Onscreen, the gal who gets dumped by the group and the guy is Jennifer Hudson, who was also dumped by Simon Cowell on “American Idol.” Boy, does she take some sweet revenge!
You could compare the score, by Henry Krieger, to the Motown sound it emulates and commemorates. It would definitely fall short, though the film sure ramps up the voltage. And you could examine the quick-cut, hyperkinetic movie direction of Bill Condon compared to the heart-stopping onstage work of Michael Bennett, to whom the film is dedicated. Engaging but not groundbreaking.
Still, the movie makes for a rockin’ good time; it succeeds as a musical and as a film. It’s chock-full of glamour and pizzazz, it’s gorgeously designed and outrageously costumed. And the performances are supreme (pun intended). Hudson is a knockout as the arrogant, big-voiced Effie. The hip hop diva Beyoncé is drop-dead stunning, and the montages of her looks and wigs over the decades will satisfy any diehard fan. This is her film visually; but vocally, it belongs to Hudson . And, in a killer performance, it also belongs to Eddie Murphy as James “Thunder” Earley, so very James Brown, a portrayal made more heartrending by the soul-king’s recent death. And we should mention that Diana Ross never liked the show. And the Broadway cast feels excluded from all the movie hoopla.
But “Dreamgirls” is more concerned with youth than nostalgia. The film producers acquired the stage rights and made them available throughout 2006, so students could get to know the show. That should ensure ticket and CD sales for the young who, as an extra bonus, just might develop a taste for musicals. Meanwhile, the Oscar buzz goes on. So you might as well get in on the action.
©2007 Patté Productions Inc.