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.
Effie is the zaftig member of the girl group the Dreamettes, later re-christened The Dreams. She has most of the talent, but none of the looks in an age when an audience judges singers more by their appearance than by their pipes. As the film opens in the early 1960s, Effie brings the house down at a Detroit amateur contest with her earthy R&B that shakes the rafters and brings the audience to its feet. They don’t win the contest, an early lesson in life not being fair, but it does lead the trio to a gig as the backup singers for local R&B celebrity, James “Thunder” Early (Murphy). It’s also the night that car-dealer and backstage hanger-on Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), spots them as his ticket into the music business. It turns the ladies’ lives upside down in more ways than just climbing the charts. Taylor woos Effie, Early, with an oddly irresistible narcissistic charm, puts the moves on Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose), and Deena (Beyonce) begins her transformation from sheltered mama’s girl into a world-class diva.
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.
Director and screenwriter Bill Condon, who proved with the screenplay for 2002’s CHICAGO that he knows how to translate a stage work, has re-imagined DREAMGIRLS for the screen by trusting in the story, not in the way a film can open up a play. The scenes are necessarily episodic, as the film rockets through 15 years, but because the emotional arc remains steady, it’s surprisingly cohesive, creating a story that is much more than the sum of its often very impressive parts. The music seamlessly bridges years and transitions, spatial, temporal, and emotional. The best moment is Effie singing the iconic “I Tell You That I’m Not Going” as her world crumbles around her, a solo that raises goosebumps with its rawness. The best zinger in the film is that it’s followed immediately by the new, Effie-less, Dreams singing pre-digested white noise designed to offend no one rather than appeal to anyone.
Effie is at the heart of that arc, impulsive, playful, and arrogant. Hudson celebrates the complexity. She is ferocious in a role that requires nothing less, reconciling the bombast and the vulnerability by making them both, like Effie, larger than life and, more, makes them two sides of the same coin. Her presence is palpable in every frame of film, even if she herself is not on screen. Everyone else is just treading water trying to catch up. Foxx makes the mistake of being reptilian from the start with nowhere to go from there as his character moves from hustler to mogul. Beyonce is better, playing the lump of clay with nothing distinct except her bone structure, but she is still essentially a mannequin. Keith Robinson has more depth as Effie’s songwriter/choreographer brother who loses and then finds his soul, as does Danny Glover as the old-school type of manager who is tossed aside along with the debris from the riots. It’s Murphy who comes close to stealing the film as the mercurial, R&B singer doomed to be road kill when he makes his own try for crossover success, dredging up some genuinely poignant gravitas amid the cocksure comedy.
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.