When I talked with Jennifer Hudson, who made her first splash during the third season of American Idol, the Oscar ™ buzz had already begun over her performance as Effie in DREAMGIRLS. The chat on November 28, 2006 covered singing as Jennifer and singing as Effie, dealing with wardrobe from another era, and learning from it all.
If Jennifer Hudson never makes another movie, if she never sings another song, if she drops off the radar tomorrow, her place in cinematic history will nonetheless be cemented forever by her acting debut in DREAMGIRLS. It’s as though fate has conspired to keep the Broadway hit loosely based on the rise of Diana Ross and the Supremes from coming together on the big screen until Hudson could be cast in it as Effie White. And it’s just Eddy Murphy’s bad luck to be making the comeback of the decade in the same film.
The story is the show biz classic of fame changing everything for everyone, but the subtext here is much more. Taylor’s plans for crossover success for the Dreams mirrors, perhaps unsteadily, the civil rights movement. Some characters look backward, some look forward, and some sell out. The scenes of rioting in Detroit on the same street as Rainbow Records, Taylor’s nascent music empire, may feel forced, but when Effie is told that Deena will be the lead singer because the act needs to “lighten” up its sound in order to draw a larger audience, there’s no mistaking what’s being talked about here and it’s more than just the backbeat, just as there’s no mistaking the irresistible lure of expediency over politics, money over people.
DREAMGIRLS has the requisite high energy, but more, it nails the even higher emotional stakes working in the tricky idiom of an artificial framework. It has the glitz of a great showbiz story, and the soul of a morality play.