****(out of four)
Every year, the Hollywood studios wait until the end to release some of their best offerings in hopes of riding waves of critical acclaim and Oscar nominations to box office success. It’s an annoying tradition for moviegoers who would like to see quality films every month of the year, but it’s not likely to change any time soon. For that reason, avid movie buffs have no choice but to look forward to end of the year and see everything that time will allow. January and February are also a strange time at the multiplex since those high-profile movies start coming into wide release at the same time as the first new movies of the year, which are usually terrible. I’m certainly not dying to see “Blood and Chocolate” or “Epic Movie.”
After a relatively lackluster movie year, those year-end goodies are especially needed and “Dreamgirls” is a Christmas miracle. This movie has it all: an interesting story, great characters, the right actors to bring them to life, great songs, comedy and emotion in spades. I don’t think I stopped smiling during the first hour. Not only that, but the movie, directed by Bill Condon (“Gods and Monsters,” “Kinsey”) is as skillfully made as any you’re likely to see in a long time. The sound, the cinematography, the costumes and the editing are all top-notch.
“Dreamgirls” tells a story that is very similar to the real-life story of Diana Ross and the Supremes. But don’t get hung up on who is supposed to represent whom because these characters have hearts and souls that are all their own.
Effie (Jennifer Hudson), Deena (Beyonce Knowles) and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) are three young black girls from Chicago who make up the singing group the Dreams. At the start of the movie, they are preparing to perform in an amateur talent show at the Apollo Theater in New York City. Although they do not win, they catch the eye of Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx), a used car salesman who is looking to get into the music business.
Curtis offers to get them a job singing backup for Jimmy Early (Eddie Murphy), an up-and-coming James Brown-type soul singer. At first, Effie, who is an amazingly powerful singer, balks at the idea of singing backup. After a little bit of pleading from Curtis and her fellow singers, they hit the road and start enjoying the good life.
After building a reputation touring with Jimmy, the Dreams get a shot to be successful in their own right as a trio. But first, Curtis informs Effie that he’s designating Deena as the lead vocalist. He thinks she has the right look and sound to win them mainstream success.
As the Dreams start to rise in stature and become a household name, Effie becomes more and more unsatisfied. After she misses the sound check before an important New Year’s Eve concert, she shows up at the hotel and ends up meeting her replacement. Curtis tells her that he’s kicking her out of the group. The film then follows the characters through the late ‘60s and into the 70s. I won’t go into details about the rest of the plot, but the movie stays consistently entertaining and engaging in its second half.
Hudson is absolutely astounding as Effie. Even with the movie’s many other attributes, her performance stands out as one of the best of the year. She can belt like no one’s business, but she also nails Effie’s tender vulnerability. She was voted off “American Idol” a couple of years ago, so it’s fitting that she plays a character whose immense talents aren’t valued the way they should be by the money-grubbing Curtis.
I read in some early reviews that some preview audiences had burst into applause after Hudson sings the show’s most famous song, “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” The moment comes when she is dropped from the group, and the song is not only a plea for her career, but also Curtis’ love. On a few rare occasions in my life, I’ve seen movies where the audience has applauded at the end (some deserved it more than others), but never in the middle. However, when the Evansville, Ind. audience I saw it with went crazy at the end of the song, it didn’t even seem strange. The way the scene is directed and performed, it feels as if Hudson is in the same room with the audience screaming her heart out. At that moment, you might as well be watching her live on a stage.
While Hudson has gotten most of the attention and is a virtual lock for an Oscar win, the rest of the cast is also near perfect. Foxx once again proves what a fine actor he is as the manipulative and controlling Curtis. Knowles is quite good too, conveying a good sense of how trapped Deena feels, both in her career and in her marriage to Curtis. Danny Glover is also touching as Marty Madison, an aging music insider who tries to help Effie get her career back on track years after being snubbed by Curtis.
Murphy, though, deserves special mention. As the lovable Jimmy, he gets plenty of laughs and also gets to show off his impressive singing and dancing chops. In his 1970s scenes he also hits the right dramatic notes after Jimmy has drifted into a life of drug addiction. As clichéd as that might sound, it isn’t overdone. Although Jimmy isn’t an exact replica of James Brown, he does bring up fond memories of the icon and it was little eerie when I arrived at home that night and found he had died that day.
The only reason not to see this movie is if you hate musicals. I understand that they’re an acquired taste, but I personally like ones with good songs and characters. “Chicago,” which won the 2002 Best Picture Oscar, was entertaining for those reasons but I thought it was a bit overrated. Even though the movie, with its conniving murderers and lawyers, was fun, it didn’t really have any characters to root for (unless you count John C. Reilly’s cuckolded husband character, but he never gets his dignity back). “Dreamgirls” is different because I cared a lot about almost everyone in it. If you let it, it will take you to movie heaven.
“Dreamgirls” is rated PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned.