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'Girls' night out Big musical spectacle is the supreme movie event of the season

Beyonce who?

Let's all admit it's rude and unseemly to ask that of the gorgeous and lusty R&B diva -- especially since she's so good in Bill Condon's "Dreamgirls." But then, it's the query that will come naturally to the lips of anyone who watches Jennifer Hudson blow the doors off American movie theaters in the movie, beginning Christmas Day.

And that's going to be a whole lot of people. "Dreamgirls" is this year's coast-to-coast holiday movie spectacular. It's the kind of movie people really want to flock to during holiday periods. It's just going to be one of the things people do this season.

And Hudson is one of the main reasons why. Her big number "I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" is, in the most literal sense, a showstopper. Audiences -- in movie theaters, mind you -- leap to their feet at the end of it with screams and applause. And when they stop, the movie still has an hour more to go -- an absorbing hour of involving plot resolution, musical adrenaline and performing passion. But I doubt if there would have been a soul in any American movie theater who'd have felt cheated if the movie had ended right there (except, perhaps, those who'd somehow already paid the babysitter in advance and couldn't think of anywhere else to go).

But then Condon's "Dreamgirls" is scarcely more than five minutes old when you become secure in the knowledge that this is one movie musical that knows how it's done. It consistently finds a brilliantly cinematic way to bring Michael Bennett's Broadway smash to the screen.

I find it utterly unfathomable that there has been a voice or two in doubt about Condon's quick cuts and all during dance numbers. What is gaudily apparent to anyone even vaguely musical throughout "Dreamgirls" is that Condon is that rare director of movie musicals with just as much natural rhythm as showmanship (think of Gene Kelly, his frequent partner and ex-hoofer Stanley Donen, or ex-dancers Herbert Ross and Bob Fosse, not to mention the unofficial director of so many of his own dance sequences, Fred Astaire).

Even those of us not immediately inclined to be at all sympathetic to the plight of the movie musical -- who, for instance, weren't all that enthralled with "Chicago," performing excellence notwithstanding -- can't help but be more than a little blown away by "Dreamgirls."

To be sure, this is Broadway B.S. -- synthetic Motown music, emotional excess, egregious fakery -- but it's big, slurpy joyous B.S. of an eminently American sort that moves and grooves and delights (not to mention gives birth to major stars and reenergized careers). It's as highly charged as cinema gets, for all its grounding in Broadway dance.

What it is, for those who don't know, is a highly fictionalized and stylized version of the early days of the Supremes. Beyonce Knowles (the star of "Supreme" updates, Destiny's Child) pretends to be the wraithlike Diana Ross, Jennifer Hudson to be a sort of truculent, self-destructive, behemoth-voiced version of Florence Ballard, Jamie Foxx an almost slanderously soulless version of Berry Gordy and Eddie Murphy a crunchy incarnation of James Brown with a little bit of smooth balladeering Marvin Gaye ladled over the top (the wonderful name writer Tom Eyen gave the character is James "Thunder" Early.)

In this version, the soul trio starts out as Early's backup singers and, through the systematic musical bleaching and astute business sense of Gordyish Curtis Taylor Jr. (Foxx), winds up to be every bit the crossover, Vegas-conquering trio that the Supremes once were.

Anyone attempting to find much verisimilitude in "Dreamgirls" has long since been advised to get serious. This is, no doubt, about as much like the real Supremes as "The West Wing" was like the Clinton administration.

Believing, for instance, that "Miss Diana Ross" was once an unambitious, wren-boned singer who, by total accident, fell into congress with Gordy and took over from Ballard as the group's centerpiece only with great reluctance, is a feat that even the most ardent Ross hagiographer might find impossible. (Even Michael Jackson would have found that ridiculous back when he was still Michael Jackson and had his own nose.)

But then Knowles, to give the performer her due, is too elementary a performer to have Ross' girlish, soul-whine and thank heaven for that.

Almost as much of a revelation as Hudson in this movie is Murphy playing singer James "Thunder" Early, the roughneck road narcissist and soul man who tries manfully but can't quite bring himself to go upscale in the new "lighter" crossover genre that is crying out for Vegas and conquering the charts.

In one of the movie's earliest -- and best -- gags, Early's moderate R&B hit "Cadillac Car" becomes a smash hit in the hilariously soulless white cover version we hear in the soundtrack. (It had been thus ever since, say, the white Crew Cuts covered the Penguins' sublime doowop classic "Earth Angel" a half century ago.)

By the time of the ending, the movie has become so full of empowerment that dramatically and inspirationally speaking, it's almost inert. But we've seen all of its Broadwayish bologna jolted into rip-roaring vitality by extraordinary talent and dedication.

You won't doubt for a minute, by the way, that this African-American gathering of the clan is, to the cast, a sublime statement of pride in the level of black talent routinely available to Hollywood, should it ever deign to figure intelligent ways to use it. Along with Knowles and Murphy and Foxx, you'll see Danny Glover, Sharon Leal (of TV's "Boston Public") and newcomer Anika Noni Rose.

The career of director Condon continues to be one of the more accomplished in our movies these days. The first Condon movie that got everyone's attention was "Gods and Monsters," the suave biopic about James Whale, the director of the original "Frankenstein."

What Colin Clive -- as Dr. Frankenstein -- said of the monster in that film after stitching him together out of old corpse parts and lightning bolts, applies to this totally artificial movie creature, which has been grafted together out of old Broadway cliches, pure hooey and raw dynamism.

To wit: IT'S ALIVE!!!




4 stars (out of 4)

Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, Danny Glover, Sharon Leal and Anika Noni Rose in Bill Condon's much-acclaimed movie version of the smash-hit Broadway musical. Rated PG-13, opening Christmas Day in movie theaters.

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