On December 14, 1959, Berry Gordy, Jr. founds the Motown record label in his hometown of Detroit at the encouragement of songwriter Smokey Robinson. Through much hustling, scheming and plain good businessmanship, he not only makes local stars of his African-American artists but also allows them to crossover into the national pop charts, entertaining audiences black and white alike. One of Motown’s signature acts is The Supremes, a female trio who started out singing backup for Marvin Gaye. The original lead singer, big-voiced Florence Ballard, was shoved to the sidelines to make room for Diana Ross and was eventually fired altogether from the group. She sank into depression and alcohol, wound up on welfare and tragically never quite made it as a solo performer.
What does any of that have to do with “Dreamgirls”? Everything, stupid! All you need to do is substitute Gordy for Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), Motown for Rainbow Records, Robinson for C.C. White (Keith Robinson), The Supremes for The Dreams, Gaye (with a good helping of James Brown and Little Richard) for James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy), Ballard for Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) and Ross for Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles). Adapted from the smash 1981 Broadway musical, “Dreamgirls” is a breathtaking movie experience that outdoes every similar picture in recent memory. I expected a personal story (rise, fall and redemption, plus a couple of love affairs) and the film does work on that level, but what makes it so extraordinary is how it’s in many ways a musical epic. Very much an ensemble piece, taking place over a decade, this is not just the history of The SupremesDreams but of Motown as a whole, which connects to most of 20th century pop culture and the evolution of race relations.
Some of these themes have been touched upon in various biopics and documentaries, but never like this. This isn’t your typical musician flick where you go through his life and once in a while, it cuts to him performing a random hit on stage. This is a true musical in which every song moves the story along and allows the characters to voice thoughts and feelings they couldn’t express otherwise. Jimmy’s brash bravado in Fake Your Way To The Top, Curtis’s cocky amorality in Steppin’ To The Bad Side, all the main characters’ affection for each other in Family, Effie’s desperate need to be loved in the phenomenal show-stopper And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going, Deena’s self-realization in Listen…
As a former member of an all-girl group who outshined her bandmates herself, Beyoncé clearly could identify to this material and she shows a more naked, vulnerable side of her that we’ve rarely seen before. Foxx is surprisingly unafraid to be unsympathetic: his character is a full-on asshole, and Foxx doesn’t shy away from that. I’ve liked Murphy in quite a few of his broad comedies, but he’s never been as badass on screen as in his stand-up movies (“Delirious”, “Raw”) – until now. In “Dreamgirls”, he’s funny, yes, but he’s also aggressively sexual, dangerous even. And he’s got SOUL! In smaller parts, Robinson, Danny Glover (as Early’s manager) and Anika Noni Rose (as the third original Dream) also get to shine. And then there’s Jennifer Hudson, who’s sure to amaze you with her singing and make you cry with her acting. I’m sure “Dreamgirls” will win plenty of Oscars, and she should be first in line.
“Dreamgirls” was written for the screen and directed by Bill Condon, who displays masterful filmmaking skills both in the spectacular moments and the more intimate ones. What particularly impressed me is how, like Scorsese in “Goodfellas” or “Casino”, Condon uses a lot of visual storytelling and whiplash editing to convey much information without making us feel overwhelmed by exposition. Here’s a movie that’s truly firing on all cylinders and never faltering. At least, that’s what this Motown-loving, musical buff thought!