Monday, February 05, 2007


Dreamgirls is a musical. Stick with me though, lads, Beyonce's in it!! Ah, lost most of ye already I'd imagine... That's the problem with musicals, they just don't tend to pack the lads into the cinemas, unless they're dragged by a focussed and determined girlfriend, keen not to get stuck watching another 'Apocalypto' or some such.

The thing is, to blindly rule out an entire genre can mean missing out on the occasional gem. Hollywood has a long-standing tradition of churning out musical feature films that showcase genuinely talented people performing at the top of their game. Fair enough, the term 'chick-flick' is a facile label to apply to some of these, but more recently, the Hollywood musical has attempted to attract a more broad audience. While 'Chicago', 'Rent' and (choke) 'Moulin Rouge' were more or less targeted at 'burds', other recent musical releases such as '8 Mile', 'Hustle and Flow', 'The Producers' and even 'Team America' and 'SouthPark' (one of PCMR's all-time favourites) can be described as appealing to the lads just as much as the ladies. (possibly more so with the last two - Ed)

'Dreamgirls' is slightly more difficult to categorise in these terms. Eddie Murphy's turn as an aging soul singer will appeal to male audiences, as will Beyonce's doe-eyed presence. However, the real star of the movie, Jennifer Hudson, will probably appeal more to the female audience members, giving this movie a broader audience than a straight-forward chick-flick.

There are two great performances in this movie, but Jennifer Hudson's is pretty much a revelation. This is a girl who entered American Idol, a 'Popstars'-style audition show in the U.S., and made it to the final six before getting booted off. An inauspicious beginning to a showbiz career, you might think, and you'd be right. However, when Hudson won the role of Effie White in Dreamgirls, she was chosen ahead of hundreds of other hopefuls, including the eventual winner of that show. Progress perhaps. Well, after watching this movie, I can't help thinking that Hudson misrepresented herself on that American Idol, because she literally owns this movie. Her voice is soulful, powerful and mature, and she has most of the lead numbers. Rightfully so, because she is by a mile the best singer of the ensemble group.

The story charts the rise of Effie's (Hudson's) group, 'The Dreamettes' from beginning as backing singers to James "Thunder" Early, (Eddie Murphy) to being the biggest thing in the pop charts in the 60's and 70's. (It's strongly implied that this is the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes, but names have been changed to protect the innocent - Ed) Although Effie is universally recognised as being the best singer of the group, she is eventually asked to take a backseat to allow Deena Jones (Beyonce) take the lead of the group. It is perhaps art reflecting life, but when the girls' manager (Jamie Foxx) reveals to Beyonce's character that he chose her for lead vocals because her voice was 'bland' and had more cross-over appeal to a pop audience, this rings quite true to reality. Compared to Hudson's vocal power and range, Beyonce really is put in the shade as a vocalist. She only gets one opportunity to shine with a musical number, and she does a very good job, but by that stage in the movie, Hudson has already well and truly stolen the show, run away with it, and is smugly sitting in her dressing room waiting for the awards to roll in.

Eddie Murphy's performance is worthy of a mention too, for the pleasant surprise of its brilliance. He has always been a more than capable singer, a James Brown riff forming a big part of his early stand-up routines. Consequently, he is genuinely good in the three or four numbers he tackles in this movie, and his acting performance is the strongest in the film, undoubtedly the best he has turned in for years, decades even. (Shrek doesn't count!). His character is the most interesting in the piece, and although it is steeped in music lore and cliche, his story is an excellent couterbalance to the meteoric rise of the band who used to be his backing singers. (He also has the best song, 'Patience', worthy of download even, and up for the Oscar - Ed).

Jamie Foxx is in his comfort zone in this one, and didn't really stand out for me, but he was competent enough I suppose. Beyonce's musical performances were excellent as you would expect, but she's not quite an actress yet. Her wide-eyed, honey-voiced turn in 'Goldmember' was great for novelty value, but she seems like a rabbit caught in the camera's headlights in certain scenes in Dreamgirls, mostly the ones involving her dialogue. This is only her first serious acting role though, so let's not be too harsh, because her stage performances are top stuff.

And it is in these performance pieces where Dreamgirls really cranks up the Hollywood glitz, the stagey razzamatazz, as 'Chicago' referred to. The staging of the musical numbers is engaging and showy enough to appeal to the MTV generation as much as fans of, oh I don't know, Cats or something. (Philistine - Ed). But for fans of Motown, 70's funk, Curtis Mayfield, and Disco, there is a great range of musical numbers on show here, all smartly choreographed and expertly performed. Also, there is not so much of that annoying feature of some Hollywood musicals, where the characters simply sing their dialogue to each other.. this device always smarts with me, and thankfully there's not too much of that sort of thing in Dreamgirls.

Although Oscar traditionally doesn't reward comedies, musicals are an entirely different matter. 'Ray', 'Walk the Line' and 'Chicago' have picked up Oscars in recent years, (for Jamie Foxx, Reese Witherspoon and Catherine Zeta-Jones) and PCMR predicts with confidence that of the 8 oscar nominations that Dreamgirls has received, Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy are water-tight no-brainer shoe-ins, and the movie will pick up at least two more for art and music direction, and also best song (where it has no less than three chances to win).

If you don't like musicals, I shake my head disapprovingly at you and urge you to reconsider this unfair prejudice. There are enough recent examples ('Walk the Line' dammit!?) to make a strong case for the movie musical as a potentially cracking piece of entertainment. Put it this way, when the wife/girlfriend 'suggests' you go see 'Dreamgirls' together, rest assured in the knowledge that you can go along, secretly really enjoy it, and also earn the required brownie point credits to go see something like 'Apocalypto' the following week. The perfect crime...

The verdict: A musical, but a very very good one. This is Hollywood razzamatazz at it's glitzy glamorous best, and Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy are excellent.
The rating: 8/10

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