Home > Reviews > DREAMGIRLS – Henry Krieger and Stephen Trask

DREAMGIRLS – Henry Krieger and Stephen Trask

December 15, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Clark Douglas

In the wake of “Chicago” becoming a hit with audiences and Oscar voters, there has been something of a futile effort to revive movie musicals in recent years. We’ve seen one disappointment after another: the poorly-cast “Phantom of the Opera”, the entertaining but hollow remake of “The Producers”, and that simply atrocious theatrical version of “Rent”. Not only are movie going audiences not particularly receptive to musicals, it seems there aren’t many filmmakers who know how to make good ones. The latest stage-to-screen adaptation, Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen’s “Dreamgirls”, is an exception. The film may not be strong enough to give the genre a second wind, but it’s certainly an excellent piece of entertainment.

The story is set in the 1960’s and 70’s, and is loosely based on the events surround The Supremes, represented here by a girl singing group comprised of three best friends. There’s the audacious and soulful lead singer Effie (Jennifer Hudson of “American Idol”), the pretty and graceful Deena (singer Beyoncé Knowles), and the just-happy-to-be-there Lorell (Akina Noni Rose). They perform strongly at a talent contest in Detroit, and are noticed by up-and-coming talent agent Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx). He invites them to sing back-up for James Brown/Little Richard hybrid James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy), a star of the R&B genre. The girls accept, and we’re off.

Though Early and the girls are maintaining a certain degree of success among black audiences, none of their songs are hitting the mainstream pop charts. Curtis wants more, and determines to find a way to make R&B music more mainstream. They try the Beach Boys approach of singing songs about cars, coming up with a song about a Cadillac. The song is quickly stolen by a mild-mannered white singer who offers a gentler, more easily accessible version of the tune to audiences still making the transition to rock n’ roll from the crooner era. This of course infuriates everyone, and Curtis determines that if he can’t beat them, join them.

The girls are given their own group, and are dubbed The Dreams. In a cold movie, Curtis dumps the soulful Effie from the group, making the attractive and less controversial Deena the lead singer. Curtis instructs the girls to sing whatever will make them the most popular, whether that’s light pop or disco, sometimes with a very watered-down R&B influence. Not only that, but he turns live wire Jimmy Early into a mellow balladeer, to make him more appealing to white audiences. Meanwhile, Effie struggles to find work.

Director Bill Condon (who also made the excellent “Gods and Monsters”) does a fine job handling the film’s subject matter. The story’s key points hit home, but Condon never does any preaching… the music speaks for itself. He trusts the audience to notice the difference between a powerful R&B number and a soulless disco ballad, he doesn’t have to cut to people offstage muttering, “Boy, this is crap.”

Performances are strong across the board. Jamie Foxx turns in a surprisingly subtle performance as Curtis Taylor, Jr. He begins at likable up-and-comer and ends as a loathsome monster, but it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact spot when our feelings toward him make the transition. Foxx’s performance is from the inside out, he doesn’t change anything externally, but over the course of the film, he becomes an entirely different character. Eddie Murphy is equally compelling as Jimmy Early, regaining credibility after years of embarrassingly bad movies (though he seems determined to bring things down again with the upcoming “Norbit”). Murphy is convincing in the energetic onstage scenes and the melancholy offstage portions, particularly later in the film. Beyoncé Knowles is finally quite good, after several unmemorable performances in films like “The Fighting Temptations”, “Austin Powers in Goldmember”, and “The Pink Panther”. She brings grace and a bit of vulnerability to her role as a woman being used as a marketing device. Finally, there’s Jennifer Hudson, who out-acts and out-sings everyone here. Her debut performance is astonishingly good, exhibiting far more onscreen confidence than most newcomers have. The whole film is good, but when Hudson sings “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”, it’s electrifying.

“And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is probably the film’s strongest number, a beautiful and deeply personal song, but there’s plenty of other great material as well. In general, the onstage numbers are a little bit stronger than the offstage ones… Beyoncé does a fine job on a ballad called “Listen”, and Eddie Murphy turns in a sizzling performance on the energetic “Fake Your Way to the Top”. Jamie Foxx doesn’t sing as often as the others, but he demonstrates his solid vocal talents in “When I First Saw You”. “Cadillac Car”, Hudson’s version of “One Night Only”, the title song “Dreamgirls”, and the moving “I Am Changing” are among the other highlights. Surprisingly, virtually none of the songs fall flat, in fact, certain performances actually exceed the acclaimed Broadway versions.

There’s very little underscore in the film, only instrumental bridges breaking up or linking musical numbers. Stephen Trask, whose previous credits include “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”, “The Station Agent” and “In Good Company” wrote the few very small bits of score the film contains (I’m sure there’s less than ten minutes), and Deborah Lurie (“The Unfinished Life”) is credited with “Additional Music”.

“Dreamgirls” was a particularly refreshing experience for me. Here is a film that is both warm and crowd-pleasing without ever allowing reality to be sacrificed in the name of good vibes. It is very uplifting, but realizes that highs aren’t as exciting if there aren’t any lows. Along the way, there’s good performances, some wise commentary on the music business, and some particularly insightful character development, but the film isn’t really about any of those things… it’s about giving movie audiences a dazzling two hours of entertainment, and it does that admirably. A great time at the movies, highly recommended.

Rating: ****½

Track Listing:

  • Move (performed by Jennifer Hudson, Beyoncé Knowles and Anika Noni Rose)
  • Fake Your Way to the Top (performed by Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson, Beyoncé Knowles and Anika Noni Rose)
  • Cadillac Car (performed by Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson, Beyoncé Knowles, Anika Noni Rose, Rory O’Malley, Laura Bell Bundy and Anne Elizabeth Warren)
  • Steppin’ to the Bad Side (performed by Jamie Foxx, Keith Robinson, Hinton Battle, Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson, Beyoncé Knowles and Anika Noni Rose)
  • Love You I Do (performed by Jennifer Hudson)
  • I Want You Baby (performed by Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson, Beyoncé Knowles and Anika Noni Rose)
  • Family (performed by Keith Robinson, Jennifer Hudson, Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles and Anika Noni Rose)
  • Dreamgirls (performed by Beyoncé Knowles, Jennifer Hudson and Anika Noni Rose)
  • It’s All Over (performed by Jennifer Hudson, Beyoncé Knowles, Anika Noni Rose, Jamie Foxx, Keith Robinson and Sharon Leal)
  • And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going (performed by Jennifer Hudson)
  • When I First Saw You (performed by Jamie Foxx)
  • Patience (performed by Eddie Murphy, Anika Noni Rose and Keith Robinson)
  • I Am Changing (performed by Jennifer Hudson)
  • I Meant You No Harm/Jimmy’s Rap (performed by Eddie Murphy)
  • One Night Only (performed by Jennifer Hudson)
  • One Night Only [Disco Version] (performed by Beyoncé Knowles, Anika Noni Rose and Sharon Leal)
  • Listen (performed by Beyoncé Knowles)
  • Hard To Say Goodbye (performed by Beyoncé Knowles, Anika Noni Rose and Sharon Leal)
  • Dreamgirls [Finale] (performed by Jennifer Hudson, Beyoncé Knowles, Anika Noni Rose and Sharon Leal)
  • When I First Saw You [Duet/End Title Version] (performed by Jamie Foxx and Beyoncé Knowles)

Running Time: ## minutes ## seconds

Music World/Sony Urban 82876-88953-2 (2006)

Music composed by Stephen Trask. Conducted by Damon Intrabartolo. Orchestrations by Damon Intrabartolo and Frank Macchia. Additional music by Deborah Lurie and Paul Rabjohns. Songs by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen. Song arrangements by Mervyn Warren and David Richard Campbell. Recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands. Edited by Tim Boot abd Jason Ruder. Album produced by Henry Krieger, Harvey Mason Jr., Damon Thomas, Randy Spendlove and Matthew Rush Sullivan.

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