For all its flaws, Dreamgirls is what this holiday season needs. It’s a big, fat, luscious movie in which no one is tortured, murdered, or mutilated (honestly, how many recent films can you say that about?), as well as a heartfelt paean to the transformative power of singing (even if the songs themselves are kind of meh). Despite its schlocky score and slack pacing, I predict this film will be wildly successful, for two reasons: One, because it makes audiences feel good. And two, because in the figure of Jennifer Hudson, who was unexpectedly voted off American Idol in Season 3, Americans can finally experience the completion of the collective star-making fantasy we’ve nurtured for four years now on that show.
Though the beloved stage musical that the movie is based on predated Idol by two decades, the Dreamgirls ethos is of a piece with that of the hit reality show, where “being a diva” and “finding your voice” constitute the performer’s supreme good. Dreamgirls is the story of a woman who does exactly that. Well, three women, actually: Deena Jones, the Diana Ross-like singer played by Beyoncé Knowles; Effie White, the soulful belter played by Jennifer Hudson; and the ditzy but loyal Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) all do their share of voice-finding and diva-being over the course of the movie’s 15-year time span. But the fact that even Beyoncé—a gifted and charismatic performer whose cheekbones alone are an argument for the existence of God—takes a back seat to Hudson throughout the movie is a measure of how star-making Hudson’s supporting role is.
Dreamgirls takes off with a bang in a snappy opening sequence, as the titular trio, billed as The Dreamettes, compete in an amateur talent show in Detroit. Like Hudson in the third season of Idol, they lose the contest but soon move on to bigger things: A slick car dealer named Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx) offers to manage their careers and becomes Effie’s man in the process. Soon the girls are singing back-up for a James Brown-style soul showman named James Thunder Early (played with career-remaking brio by Eddie Murphy). When the girls land a gig of their own at a lily-white Miami club, Curtis decides to revamp the look and sound of the group: He changes their name to The Dreams, relegates Effie to backup, and has the whiter-looking and -sounding Deena sing lead. When Effie gives him attitude about this turn of events, Curtis summarily replaces her with a skinnier, more compliant back-up singer (Sharon Leal) and starts an affair with the glamorous Deena.
Understandably furious, Effie launches into her big ballad, an abject plea that could be the theme, not only of every rejected lover, but of every showbiz wannabe (I predict it shows up next season on American Idol). After this showstopper, the show does, indeed, stop, or at least slow to a pace that never picks up momentum again. The second half of the movie descends into standard biopic rhythm, punctuating the Dreams’ rise to superstardom with ever more expository and less moving songs. (My personal low point was when Foxx crooned his passion for Beyoncé over a montage of her increasingly outré fashion spreads, a number I like to call “Baby, I Love Your Photo Shoot.”)
It only takes a short list of Supremes song titles—”Where Did Our Love Go?”, “Baby Love,”* “Stop! In the Name of Love”—to point out the difference between genuine Motown and the Dreamgirls score. Were you able to read any of those titles without hearing the hook in your head? By contrast, the songs in Dreamgirls, even the big Effie number cited above, leave you walking out of the theater with nary a toe a-tappin’. I’ll leave it to my colleague Jody Rosen to more explicitly discuss the score, but suffice it to say that, though the songs range from the agreeably banal to the watch-consultingly dull, not a single melody will remain in your head the day after.
Still, watching Dreamgirls on the big screen feels like an event somehow. Maybe it’s the conviction and passion that the actors bring to their roles. Unlike the film version of Chicago (scripted by this film’s director, Bill Condon), Dreamgirls doesn’t feel synthetic and dead on-screen. It uses theatrical conventions to capture some of the energy of live theater; for example, a clever curtain-call-style credit sequence gives the audience a chance to cheer for the actors one by one as we revisit the highlights of each performance. The audience I saw Dreamgirls with went crazy for the whole cast but especially Hudson, who’s a pure delight to watch whether she’s shaking her copious rack at the talent-show audience, storming out of a recording session, or telling off her rival. Hudson’s climactic plea in her big song—”You’re Gonna Love Me”—seems to have done its job: We do. I’d say she has a lock on a Best Supporting Actress nomination, if not a win. Whatever happens next in Hudson’s career, the journey from talent-show reject to this year’s discovery is a Cinderella comeback worthy of Effie White herself.