Wednesday, May 02, 2007
Just Dreamy on DVD
By Tony Buchsbaum
Dreamgirls is a movie that just doesn’t stop. From its very first frames, the action is non-stop, a play of color and light and music and story that’s at once inspiring and cautionary. The story of the Dreams, a Supremes-like girl group, rockets along, from their earliest days at a Detroit talent contest to their dues-paying years as back-up singers for James Early, from their reconfiguration with a new lead singer.
It sounds easy enough, but along the road there are significant bumps, and all the ones that matter fall squarely into the category that’s framed by the question: “Is fame worth the cost?”
Beyoncé Knowles, Jennifer Hudson, and Anika Noni Rose play the young women, and they all deliver spectacular performances. Make no mistake: Hudson won the Oscar, and deservingly so, but without Knowles and Rose as foils, she would have come across more as a bitchy diva than the put-upon, misunderstood underdog.
The thing with Dreamgirls is that it was widely thought to be Beyoncé’s movie, and then was thought to be Jennifer’s (as in: she steals every scene she’s in). But the truth is, it’s a movie that really belongs to the story, an epic tale about the price paid for the kind of on-stage success so many dream about.
The dream, of course, is both literal and figurative. The Dreams represent nothing less than our dreams. Their conflicts—with one another, with themselves—are palpable and painful. And as the curtain falls, so to speak, you might find yourself asking if what they end up with is worth what they lost. When Jennifer Hudson’s Effie White is rebuffed by her friends and professional family, her soaring “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is transformed from show-stopping theater song to heart-stopping life-or-death plea. If any one thing won Hudson the Oscar, this is it. Most of the songs in this musical are rendered on-stage, but Hudson’s big moment is more monologue than song, more soliloquy than aria, more acting than singing. It’s the kind of thing that gets people on their feet, a new performance benchmark.
Hudson is the film’s magnet, but its surprise is Eddie Murphy. He is simply extraordinary. Emotions run across his face like an elaborate Asian fan: cockiness and joy here, disappointment and devastation there. The man can sing, and goodness known he can mess around and have fun, but even more critical to this film, he can act. This is a new Murphy, and I just hope his Oscar loss won’t prevent him from doing more of this kind of work.
Director Bill Condon, who took a few liberties when he wrote the Chicago a few years back, takes a few with Dreamgirls, as well. Some numbers from the Broadway version have been cut, a few others added (most notably Beyoncé’s own plea-filled aria, “Listen”). But as good as the Dreamgirls script is, what makes this movie come alive is its design. Not one frame of it is small—or small-minded. It’s a lush production that generates a very real of sense of Importance. The costumes, the sets, the music, even the actors themselves are part of a grand design orchestrated by Condon and his team. It could have felt cold, but it works.
All that said, Dreamgirls isn’t perfect. There are a few little problems, but the big one is Jamie Foxx. So great in Ray, he’s not used correctly here. His acting is sound, if a tad chilly, but his songs are just wrong. He’s said in interviews that he chose not to sing well so that he wouldn’t distract from the Dreams. The result, for example, is that his take on “When I First Saw You”—a beautiful and thoughtful declaration of love—sounds mumbles and forced and almost pained. I kept thinking: Hey, this is a musical. Make music.
There are two DVDs available: a one-disc version of just the film and some expanded scenes, and a two-disc version with all of that plus a lavish, 2-hour behind-the-scenes documentary. Definitely grab the two-discer…but you might never actually get to the second disc, because the film itself, quibbles aside, is so damn good.