I doubt many cultures, if any, can claim national stories that are made up of elements of overcoming prejudice through the use of pop culture while living out a Manifest Destiny in hopes of gaining stardom as we in the United States do. Hollywood aspirations isn’t just in our blood, it is literally a city within our borders. I’m going to confess up front, I LOVED this movie! Not because it was a good film (it obviously was in my opinion) but also it made me feel a rare sensation these days…an only in America feeling.
Dreamgirls was a Broadway musical that premiered in 1981. Loosely based on the rise of the Supremes it has been reported that Diana Ross has never been a fan of it. Suffice to say the Dreamgirls of film (I have never seen the stage production) is not something that should shame Miss Ross. I cannot speak for the accuracy, but Beyonce Knowles, AKA Deena Jones, AKA Diana Ross is not the heavy of the story, in fact, she really isn’t the star either. That honor would go to ‘American Idol’ reject, Jennifer Hudson as Effie White. Effie is introduced to us as the star, spirit, and brains behind the ‘Dreams’ the girl group trio she sings lead for with the before mentioned Knowles and Anika Nori Rose as Lorrell Robinson.
What is so great about this movie is that each character has a story arch that is unique. From the beginning to the end, the audience sees how they have grown through turbulent times as well as accepting or rejecting the dreams they have, others have for them, and what society at large defines for them. Each has strength and flaws and at no point did I feel as if I was being manipulated to feel one way or another about them. The cast, except for one scene with John Lithgow as a Hollywood producer (with that great long stringy hair so popular for the hip male of the 70’s) is black, once again emphasizing an only in American feel about the struggles and dreams the characters act out as they try to accomplish acceptance into the mainstream.
Eddie Murphy plays a James Brown (R.I.P) like singer James ‘Thunder’ Early who hits it big a few years before he could demand serious money due to racial barriers. It shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with Murphy’s lackluster forays into uninspired music from the 80’s (My Baby Parties All the Time…all the time, all the time) that he can actually sing and play Early with gusto.
Murphy has always been a performer whose natural talent seemed less than well-served by the material he performed in. For a man who once was considered the ‘King of Hollywood’ he has made too many formulaic ‘Daddy Daycares’ that did little to remind us of the young comic who had us laughing with the various 'SNL' characters as well as ‘Beverly Hill’s Cop’. ‘Dreamgirls could be Murphy’s comeback vehicle if his personal life doesn’t derail it (a baby with Scary Spice whom he has allegedly dumped with some harsh sentiments). I do not know if he will be nominated for best-supporting actor, but I would not be shocked if he was.
Jamie Foxx plays Curtis Taylor Jr. a Barry Gordy replica who starts ‘Rainbow Records’ in the motor city. Of all the complex characters, it is the story of a black mogul that has yet to be examined thoroughly by our pop cultural senses. I walked away debating about the options open to someone in the position of Taylor/Gordy. How does one break through prejudicial barriers if one does not try to manipulate the playing field? One of the most positive things anyone can say about money is that it does not see any isms – it spends regardless as to who handles it.
Foxx of course, rocks out the performance. Once again, most know that he can sing (he did win an Oscar for portraying Ray Charles). He is both vendible and a tyrant and in the end, the audience likes him regardless of his past actions.
Beyonce Knowles was much better than what I expected her to be. I dare say someday very soon she will outshine Diana Ross in legendary status. Of course, who else could fit into the platform bejeweled shoes of a singer from the early 60’s to the disco era as well as Knowles? She is the personification of glamour, but still she gives a performance worthy of praise. The irony that a girl from the hood, could be transformed into ‘America’s Sweetheart’ within a decade is not lost upon her as an actress and she plays it with understated diva quality.
Despite Knowles’s performance, Jennifer Hudson is the breakout star of the film. For a girl who was plucked out of the ‘American Idol’ competition (she was on the same year that Fantasia Barrino won - 2002) she makes the best of her opportunity. She gives Effie spunk while also showing that she can turn characters into stone by one single ‘Oh, no you D-I-D-N-‘-T’ look.
In all honestly, her performance at times felt as if it skipped a few record rotations, but she does bring it where it counts - her singing. A friend reported to me that when she saw this movie the audience actually clapped after one of her songs. While I was watching the movie I had the same feeling sweep over me, I wanted to give her a standing O after she sang, ‘And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going’ because of the electricity behind her performance. I confess I hope Hudson will be able to handle the accolades that will be coming her way. Too many celebrities have been thrust upon public consciousness as a Cinderella story only to fall to obscurity.
Now for the cream. This film really gave me a sense of what it means to be American. The backdrop in the beginning is the Civil Rights movement, which fades into life after civil rights. It endeavors to answer the question of what happens when these characters finally move into the coveted castle. The debate naturally centers on what was given up in order to become accepted by the Ed Sullivan/Las Vegas nightclub crowd and was it worth it?
The film works on many levels. I think a tip of the hat should go to the storyline. Even with a cursory knowledge of the story behind The Supremes, I did not know how it was going to end for all of the characters, which drew me more into the music. At any given point a phoenix may not have risen, a star may not have come to her own, and an empire may have collapsed.
The music is phenomenal and the staging of the productions was inspired. The film, directed and written for the screen by Bill Condon, is much like ‘Chicago’ in the way it adapted a musical and reshaped it for film. There is one sequence where all of the major characters are singing about their lives that just blew me away. Of course, it was then followed by Hudson singing Effie’s 'line in the sand', which further blew me away. Yes, I had to be swept up in a dust pan before leaving the theater.
Overall, I would suggest seeing the film in the theater because of the energy it emotes. It is a perfect film for dates despite being a musical, which I have it on expert advice is something men (assuming heterosexuality) normally would rather dance bare-footed on broken glass while being burned alive. Also, this film deliberately evokes movie images from the playful 60’s to the bell bottom 70’s, which was fun. If anything, this film with its stars, its story, and the music is a watershed for American cinema. A Manifest Destiny (Destiny’s Child – girl group representing) indeed.