'Dreamgirls'

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"Dreamgirls" is alive with the sound of music. It's a love song twotimes over, a tribute to a vibrant period of American popular music aswell as to a style of filmmaking we don't get to see enough of, the bigbudget Hollywood musical.

As directed by Bill Condon, who also wrote the adaptation of themultiple Tony Award-winning play, "Dreamgirls" tells a familiar storywith conviction and pizazz. It's a smartly entertaining example ofupdated traditionalism, of using modern energy and techniques togalvanize a story that was old-fashioned when director Michael Bennettdazzled Broadway with it in 1981.

Based loosely on the career of Diana Ross and the Supremes, "Dreamgirls"is a classic backstage story, a look at the news behind the news of howa humble girl group called the Dreamettes made its way to the pinnaclesof musical success and cultural influence. And, get out thosehandkerchiefs, of the emotional price that had to be paid along the way.

This scenario wasn't exactly profound the first time around, butwriter-director Condon so understands the emotional and technicaldemands of musicals (he was Oscar-nominated for the "Chicago" script)that he makes it feel fresh and alive. Plus he's added more of a contextof the social upheaval of the 1960s and he's gotten terrific help, notonly from his confident production team but also from the bottom half ofhis starring quartet.

For though "Dreamgirls" is well-served by charismatic stars Jamie Foxxas pop music Svengali, Curtis Taylor Jr., and Beyonce Knowles as DeenaJones, his beautiful Trilby, much of the film's appeal comes from thesurprisingly compelling work of costars Eddie Murphy and JenniferHudson, neither of whom were inevitable for their roles.

Murphy, who reportedly had to be talked into the part, gives the mostfully rounded performance of his career as James "Thunder" Early, theThunder Man himself, a soul singer of the James Brown/Jackie Wilsonvariety who gives the Dreamettes their first big break when he and hismanager Marty (Danny Glover) hire them as his backup group.

Using his matchless comic gifts and fox in the henhouse charm, Murphyeats this part alive, making more than anyone else could of thiscreature of complete self confidence and seduction. And when thingsbecome more serious and dramatic for his character in the second half,Murphy -- helped by strong work by Anika Noni Rose as Dreamette LorrellRobinson -- is ready for that challenge as well.

It wouldn't mean much to say that Dreamette Effie White is the role ofJennifer Hudson's career because this is her film debut following timespent on "American Idol." You'd never know it, though, because underCondon's direction she gives a fearless performance as the Dreamette whopays a price for having a mind of her own. And when she rips into themusical's Tom Eyen/Henry Krieger signature song, "And I Am Telling YouI'm Not Going," her singing tears the screen apart.

Though not all the songs in the production, including four new tuneswritten for the film, are as strong and memorable as this one,"Dreamgirls" is unapologetic about front-and-centering its music.Because it is a story about singers who have to rehearse, perform andrecord, no opportunity is neglected for the kind of syncopated soulmusic and showmanship that characterized the Motown sound.

"Dreamgirls" in fact begins in Detroit, with the Dreamettes showing upat a local theater to take part in a talent show. Besides getting a gigtouring with the Thunder Man, they also acquire a manager in the form ofMr. Taylor, a Cadillac dealer who has designs on not only entering butchanging the music business, on getting "our music to a wider audiencewith our money."

This is a strong vision, but as it plays out over the course of"Dreamgirls," it is complicated by the fact that Taylor turns out to bethe scoundrel of the piece, someone who is willing to play romantic andcareer games with both Hudson's Effie and Knowles' Deena if it helps toget that dream realized.

Just as "Dreamgirls" needs someone of Knowles' allure and skill to makeDeena creditable, it also needs Foxx' ability to project magnetism evenwhen he is being pulled back and withholding. The film also couldn'texist without the zesty contributions of those responsible for its look:cinematographer Tobias Schliessler, production designer John Myhre,editor Virginia Katz, costume designer Sharen Davis, choreographerFatima Robinson, and so on down the line. "Dreamgirls" is the entiremusical package, a triumph of old school on screen glamour, and wewouldn't want it any other way.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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