A trio of black female soul singers cross over to the pop charts in the early 1960s, facing their own personal struggles along the way.
I never saw “Dreamgirls” upon its initial theatrical release. Or even its subsequent home entertainment release. The reason? I don’t care for musicals. I find that when watching one, in the middle of an important scene, when characters suddenly break into song, it completely takes me out of the picture. Don’t get me wrong, I love music, I can’t sing or play an instrument to save my life but I grew up with a great admiration and respect for it. My mother was the secretary to the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland for many years so on my days off, or when I was sick (cough, cough), I would accompany her to the concert hall and at times, I would get to sit in the main auditorium all by myself, listening to the orchestra rehearse. As a filmmaker, I also understand its importance and have chosen every piece of music for all of my movies, a very time-consuming and tedious job but one that is well worth the time and effort as music can either make or break a film.
Although “Dreamgirls” is a musical, it actually works because the entire setting takes place within the music industry. While there are a few songs that the characters belt out, the majority of them transpire while they are performing on stage and because of this, it all feels genuinely natural. With the combined talents of Beyoncé, Jennifer Hudson, and a plethora of many other gifted singers, as well as Bill Condon’s deft direction, “Dreamgirls” deserves a spot in the annals of musical history, alongside such classics as “Chicago,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Sound of Music,” and “West Side Story.”
The movie begins in 1962 in Detroit and centers around The Dreamettes, a trio of singers including Deena (Beyoncé Knowles), Effie (Jennifer Hudson), and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose). After competing in a talent show, they are hopeful that they will win but when the prize is awarded to someone else, their hopes are dashed. Ready to leave, they are approached by Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a car salesman with big dreams of becoming a music producer. When he overhears Marty Madison (Danny Glover), the manager for Jimmy “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy), a very popular R&B singer, and that his backup singers have just quit, Curtis quickly steps in, introduces himself as The Dreamettes’ manager, and secures them a gig as Early’s new singers. The girls are ecstatic and the fact that the job will last for months and that they will also be getting paid, they feel as if their dreams are coming true. On the road, Curtis talks Jimmy into trying other musical genres and when he has a song written specifically for him, he very reluctantly agrees to sing it but when the single becomes a huge hit, his career receives a second boost.
Curtis and Effie become a couple and down the road, he is able to negotiate a deal where The Dreamettes will headline their own show and they leave Jimmy to travel on his own. With Effie anticipating that she will be the lead singer as she feels she has the strongest voice of the three girls, when Curtis names Deena as the lead, Effie makes it known that she is not happy about it. When the girls begin to make their own records, Effie, as a backup singer, continues to let her feelings be known by singing louder than Deena and eventually, she is asked to leave the group. She heads back to Detroit and doesn’t tell Curtis, or Deena, that she is pregnant with Curtis’ child.
As the years go by, Effie meets Marty, Jimmy’s ex-manager after Curtis took his job and he is able to get her gigs at nightclubs and bars. Deena is now married to Curtis and is a solo sensation and wanting to make the transition into making movies but while she wants to flex her acting abilities by starring in low-budget, gritty, realistic dramas, Curtis refuses, forcing her instead to headline an all-black “Cleopatra.” Curtis is now a music mogul, rich, famous, and impossible to work with. In an instant, he can ruin a person’s life and when Deena discovers that he stopped Effie from becoming a huge sensation, by paying out money to other music producers and radio stations to not work with her, she secretly gathers all the information and hires attorneys to use it against him. She also informs Effie and between them, they use their combined efforts to get Deena out of her contract with Curtis and to also give Effie back her recording privileges. The Dreamettes come together one last time, to sing farewell to the world, and to begin new chapters of their lives, without Curtis.
“Dreamgirls” works not just because of the inspirational and phenomenal music but also because of the stellar performances throughout. Eddie Murphy was nominated for an Oscar for his performance of the womanizing heartbreaker Jimmy Early, while Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar for the role of the tenacious and fearsome yet delicate Effie. Bill Condon, who has directed other character-driven movies such as “Gods and Monsters,” “Kinsey,” and “Mr. Holmes,” always manages to inspire the actors he works with into giving it their all, and therefore, encouraging each other to better themselves, and in effect, their performances. It’s been a long time since I thoroughly enjoyed a musical this much, “Grease” being the only other one but I’m so glad I had the opportunity to watch it, and to witness true performers doing what they do best.
Available on a Special Director’s Extended Edition Blu-ray & DVD October 10th