For those of us who love the movie-musical genre and bemoan its demise, every new musical is a cause for hope. But that doesn't mean that each new offering is cause for celebration.
"Dreamgirls" was written and directed by Bill Condon, who wrote the screenplay for "Chicago," and is in that film's same overhyped vein. Based on the 1982 Broadway show, it's loud and flashy. And it's predictable, even if you're new to the material.
Predictability is not, in itself, a negative. One doesn't expect dramatic complexity from movie musicals, though a few, like "Cabaret" and the neglected "Pennies from Heaven," certainly had it. What we want from musicals is a pleasing resolution of a time-honored situation, with good songs and dancing.
"Dreamgirls" has its share of show-stoppers, but it's the material in between, especially during the final hour, that falls down. One of the first requirements of a good musical is that the hackneyed elements in the story must be transcendent.
The story of "Dreamgirls" is ever so thinly adapted from the rise of Motown's Supremes. (The music is by Henry Krieger, the book and lyrics by Tom Eyen.) It begins in 1962 during a Detroit talent contest where the Dreamettes – Effie (Jennifer Hudson), Deena (Beyoncé Knowles), and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) – are noticed by promoter/hustler Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx). He places them as backup singers for star James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy), and they quickly overshadow him. Curtis renames them The Dreams, with cover-girl cute Deena replacing hefty Effie. This leads to Deena's split with the group and with Curtis, her errant boyfriend.
It also leads to the film's sole flat-out hair-raising number, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," made famous by Jennifer Holliday. (It would have been classy if the filmmakers had seen fit to give Holliday a cameo.) Much has been made of Hudson's Aretha-like lung power. An "American Idol" rejectee with no prior screen experience, her presence in this film is itself the stuff that musical dreams are made of. She's undeniably talented, though I wouldn't go as far as others have in placing her debut in the company of Barbra Streisand in "Funny Girl" or Bette Midler in "The Rose."
Without Hudson, "Dreamgirls" would be a whole lot less exciting. Knowles, the ostensible star, is rather bland, and Foxx, surprisingly, seems miscast. Murphy is wonderful, but that should be no surprise. He long ago proved he was a real actor. (He's astonishing in "The Nutty Professor.") The scene in "Dreamgirls" where Curtis axes Jimmy's social protest song "Patience" is Murphy at his best.
I'm still holding out for a renaissance in the movie musical. In the meantime, there's "Dreamgirls." Grade: B
• Rated PG-13 for language, some sexuality, and drug content.