Friday, 9 November 2007


Emily Bray is back for more with a review of Dreamgirls.

Why Bill Condon’s latest offer really is a Dream.

When you think of great Move Musicals, you’ll probably cast your mind back to Julie Andrews and the singing nuns of The Sound Of Music, Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta as the love-sick school kids of Grease, or a stony faced Madonna as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. There have been few successful musicals on the big screen in recent years, in fact the world of musicals in general has suffered from a decline in public interest. The film version of The Phantom of The Opera was indeed a much publicised release, and Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge caused rather a stir when it broke on the scene in 2001; but apart from a few such exceptions, the world of film seems to have turned it’s back on it’s musical kinsman.

February 2007, however, saw the DVD release of Dreamgirls, a descendant of the Movie Musical. The film combines some of today’s greatest pop talent with the sounds of the 60s. Interestingly, the film has not been marketed as a conventional musical. There is not a hint of the campness found in the likes of Moulin Rouge and The Producers, and though music plays a key role, it is does not engulf the film in the same way as in The Phantom of the Opera. It is perhaps closest to Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, the music blending seamlessly and functionally into a strong, well acted, and all too human plotline.

The plot is based around the life story of Diana Ross; in the film, named Deena Jones (played by Beyoncé Knowles). In many ways the young, hip Beyoncé shares many similarities with her predecessor and is rather too obvious a casting choice. She gives a very commanding and in places very mature portrayal, capturing the change from an innocent young girl, to an independent, deep young woman. There is, however, a naivety in her performance, and perhaps a little too much Beyonce and too little Deena in some places. Her finest scene in the film comes after an argument with her manager and husband Curtis Taylor Jr (Jamie Foxx), where she sings the emotionally charged ballad Listen, a performance visually and vocally powerful enough to make the audience do just that.

A more surprising choice is 2004 American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson in the role of the diva, Effie White. Hudson completely steals the stage in a phenomenal performance, with numbers like And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going, I Am Changing and One Night Only. Her intelligent and perceptive portrayal oozes emotion and soul, so much it earned her an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role as well as awards from the BAFTAs and the Golden Globes to name just a few. This film is worth watching purely for her stunning performance.

The leading men in the film are no less outstanding. Jamie Foxx’s depiction of Deena’s
ambitious, dominating and sometimes ruthless husband and manager is skilfully and truthfully acted, if in a more subtle way than the female leads. He has the great ability to express emotion with seemingly insignificant changes in voice and expression, which is picked up in fine detail by the camera. Even the most simple of scenes become loaded with significance. Eddie Murphy changes from the comic to the serious, as the tragic figure of James ’Thunder’ Early (Jimmy), a struggling singer, who’s life of drink, drugs and women drives him to despair and eventual suicide. Though there are refreshingly comic moments within his performance, they are executed in such a way that they are a result of his character and not an addition to it. He has some striking scenes throughout the film, but one of the most moving is on the night before his suicide when he finally is brought to face everything he’s lost.

The supporting cast all deliver strong, credible performances. Anika Noni Rose and Sharron Leal as the other two Dreamgirls are commanding in their subplots, with Danny Glover and Keith Robinson appearing competently and with great sincerity as the frustrated manager and songwriter. Commendations should also go to the young Mariah Wilson for a small but touching appearance as Effie’s daughter, Magic.

The high-energy, evocative music combines with effective camera work and costume, to make this a highly entertaining and deeply moving film. There is none of the typical fluffiness of some musicals, and the story and characters are firmly grounded in real life, with enough grit to make them entirely believable. Even for those a little sceptical about the whole ‘musical thing’ the film offers an example of how every note sung (an played) can be used to great effect and power.

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