Brisk and Slick

Expect to see Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy at the Oscars

I'm not an expert on whether or not Dreamgirls is a lot like the Broadway show from which it was adapted. I never saw it, and I never really paid attention to it. All I can say is that what I saw and heard on the big screen was pretty damn good. Damn good.

Loosely based on the rise of Diana Ross and The Supremes, this is a showcase for some amazing voices and powerhouse performances. Those of you following the film probably know of American Idol castoff Jennifer Hudson and her prominent role in the movie. Let's just say the Oscar buzz is more than justified. The same can be said for one Mr. Eddie Murphy, who has never been this good on the big screen. Getting left out of most of the hype would be Beyoncé Knowles, who nevertheless equals the power of the two more talked-about stars.

The film opens in early '60s Detroit, where a female trio called the Dreamettes is preparing to take the stage at an amateur show. Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a shifty car salesman with big music-management aspirations, waits backstage. The Dreamettes are led by Effie (Hudson), a big, bold woman who can remove your spleen with her voice. Curtis takes to managing the group, romancing Effie and getting the girls a gig as backup singers for James "Thunder" Early (Murphy).

The Dreamettes start to take off, and Curtis makes the decision to demote lead singer (and girlfriend) Effie to backup, giving Deena Jones (Knowles) the top spot. Deena's voice is inferior to Effie's, but her face will look better on album covers. This leads to a number that will blow your mind, with Effie singing "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going." Something otherworldly is going on when Hudson belts this one out, and I'm thinking she has sung her way to an easy Oscar nomination--with a win likely.

Matching Hudson on the amazement scale would be Murphy, who takes the opportunity to use his decent singing voice for something other than song parodies and awful pop music. Murphy delivers his songs with major soul; this performance is real, probably the first real thing he has done since 48 Hrs, 24 years ago. (Holy god ... 48 Hrs is almost a quarter-century old! I have just become acutely aware of my own mortality!) He's done some amusing stuff over the years, but not much to warrant us taking him seriously. That changes with this movie.

While Hudson and Murphy steal all the real glory, Knowles is quietly proving herself to be a mighty decent actress. Her role actually requires her to have less vocal talent than Effie, but there is one number late in the movie (when The Dreamettes have become more of a vehicle for Deena than a group) where Knowles lets it rip. Seriously, if Hudson weren't in the movie, Knowles might've been getting some Oscar buzz. As it is, she probably has no chance.

Director Bill Condon has made a movie that looks great and pops off the screen. The underlying story of the rise of Motown, and the sometimes-sleazy routes some had to take to rise to the top, is told effectively. You know a movie is good when you're left wanting to know more about the characters. The characters of Effie, Deena and Early could've each supported their own films.

In the bad-guy role, Foxx does typically fine work. (His character is loosely based on Motown records founder Berry Gordy.) Danny Glover gets his best role in recent years as manager Marty Madison, who gets left behind when Murphy's Early spurns him to be managed by Curtis. And yes, that's Urkel (Jaleel White) early in the movie, getting some adult screen time without having to wear those silly glasses.

The film moves at a brisk pace that never allows for dullness. It's slick--some might call it shallow--but it's my feeling that entertainment like this doesn't need to be profoundly deep. Dreamgirls sparkles, and you can count on seeing Murphy and Hudson in an Oscar audience shortly.

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