While "Moulin Rouge" and "Chicago" proved to be hits, some (okay, probably just me) wondered if movie musicals could sustain their resurgence. After all, Chris Columbus and his bland adaptation of "Rent" flopped and "The Producers" didn't manage to have the same energy or flair as either the original film or the musical. "Dreamgirls", however, brings the movie musical back in a big way: the brassy, bold film from director Bill Condon (screenwriter for "Chicago") scored Oscar noms and was another success at the box office, passing the $100M mark.
The picture takes a fictional look at a girl group rising up the ranks of the Motown music scene in the 60's. The "Dreamettes" are made up of: Effie (Jennifer Hudson), Deena (Beyonce Knowles) and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose). While the girls manage themselves, they get gigs through talent and determination, which gets them noticed by Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), who plucks the group up to be the back-up singer for soul singer James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy). While Effie scoffs at the idea of singing backup, the girls decide to take what could be their breakout gig.
Sure enough, the Dreamettes find success paired up with Early and eventually break off on their own, managed by Taylor, but no longer counting Effie among their ranks, as Taylor believes that Deena as the lead of the group makes them easier to market. This, despite the fact that Effie has the powerhouse voice of the trio - a fact that Deena's even aware of.
Still, Curtis pushes the change and Effie pushes back, believing in her talent and upset at being shifted to the background. Although the group becomes superstars, push comes to shove and eventually Effie is shown the door when she persists to Curtis about returning to lead. The remainder of the middle charts the career of the girls - now working with a replacement - and Effie's struggle to reclaim her success on her own.
While the film has a few major names (Murphy, Foxx, Beyonce), the film truly belongs to Hudson, who offers up a fierce performance as Effie, simply singing her heart out in the musical numbers and boasting a rich, raw and emotional performance in the dramatic scenes. The former "American Idol" contestant doesn't even really need music during her big scene of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" - all the emotion, mood and soul are right there in her incredible, wholly and completely all-out effort. There's singing that's technically just great and there's singing that's technically great and that understands the lyrics and puts the soul and feeling required behind the song to make the audience feel the words - Hudson's certainly the latter.
As for the other efforts, Foxx and Murphy offer very good supporting performances (especially Murphy, who offers his best performance in memory.) However, the one element that just doesn't spark is Knowles, who gives a performance that's just adequate: not bad, not great - not memorable. It's also nice to see John Lithgow again, even if it's only in a short cameo. Most of the performances are solid though, as are the technical credits, with enjoyable cinematography and fine production design. The production isn't flashy in any particular way, but it captures the time period well.
"Dreamgirls" does start to stall a little bit in the middle (10 minutes taken out of the film, bringing it down to about an even two hours, might have helped tighten the pace a bit), but the film is otherwise a bold, entertaining musical with a starmaking performance from Hudson.
VIDEO: "Dreamgirls" is given a striking presentation by Paramount here, as the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looked stellar throughout the show. Sharpness and detail (with the exception of a couple of scenes) were excellent throughout, as scenes appeared crisp and smooth.
As for flaws, some slight edge enhancement appeared in a couple of scenes, but this was hardly noticable. No artifacting was spotted and the print used looked entirely clean, as one mighr expect from a new release. Colors remained deep, rich and bold, appearing very well-saturated, but never veering into being oversaturated or otherwise problematic.
SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack was entertaining, offering a delightfully rich presentation of the music. The songs get a nice spread across the front speakers and often was reinforced well by the surrounds. Audio quality was terrific, as the songs were done justice by the audio's terrific warmth, clarity and power. Overall, this was a terrific audio presentation that delivered the material marvelously.
EXTRAS: The first DVD offers 12 extended song sequences, a Beyonce music video and previews for other titles from the studio. While a commentary isn't included, we do get "Building a Dream", the nearly 2-hour "making of" documentary that leads off the second DVD. The lengthy, detailed documentary takes viewers through just about every aspect of the making of the film, starting with the original Broadway play that was a great success in the 80's.
Condon then discusses how "Chicago" opened the doors again for musicals, and developing the film and the work that was required to get the script to the point where it needed to be. From there, the documentary hits on casting, chatting about getting Foxx and Beyonce involved, then the work that it took to find Hudson and convince Murphy, who took a couple of months to ponder the risk of doing a musical. There's also extensive discussion of pre-production work (pre-visualization (which included building minatures of *every set*), production design, capturing the period, extensive rehearsals, goofing around in the recording studio and more.)
The doc then shifts into production, following the cast and crew as the cameras roll. Budget considerations are discussed, we see the obstacles that the filmmakers faced and we watch as some of the major scenes are filmed. The documentary wraps up in the last 15 minutes or so with a look at the film's release. There's a fair amount of time spent in this doc with the participants discussing how wonderful everyone was, but most of the running time is informative, focused and a very detailed look behind-the-scenes.
Moving on, "Dream Logic", "Dressing the Dreams" and "Center Stage: Theatrical Lighting" are brief, but informative looks at editing, costume design and lighting. The second disc also offers auditions for Beyonce, Anika Noni Rose and a choreography audition with Fatima Robinson. There's also a massive image gallery and 7 pre-visualization sequences.
Final Thoughts: "Dreamgirls" is highly entertaining and, while the film offers a few great performances, Jennifer Hudson is exceptional in her Oscar-winning debut. The DVD boasts superb audio/video quality and a sold-out crowd's worth of extra features. Highly recommended.
The Film B+