Bill Condon goes from Chicago to Detroit in this Oscar-winning musical about a Motown-type girl group (Jennifer Hudson, Anika Noni Rose and Beyoncé).
Few genres are as homogeneous as music movies, sharing plot points, emotional beats and character archetypes with a uniformity that betrays the calculating mechanics of the music industry. That cynicism actually works in Dreamgirls‘ favour, satirising the industry without skimping on the artistry, glamour and melodrama that makes us tell these stories over and over again.
This 2006 adaptation has so many references to real people and events that a full list would take up the entire programme for the 1981 Broadway production. Suffice to say Motown and specifically The Supremes loom large in Dreamgirls‘ lexicon, with characters based on James Brown (Eddie Murphy), Smokey Robinson (Keith Robinson) and Motown boss Berry Gordy Jr. (Jamie Foxx). The Jackson 5-derived family band The Campbell Connection is a particularly nice touch.
Hewing closely to those cultural realities gives the film more bite than the average nostalgia musical, for instance by showing the black artists having their songs ripped off by white teen idols Dave & The Sweethearts. The music also does justice to the quality-controlled hit factory that was Motown, the songs sounding authentic while advancing the plot so successfully that virtually no dialogue is required. The musical styles even progress to mirror the trends of the ’60s and ’70s, moving from R&B to soul to disco just as The Dreamettes become The Dreams and then Deena Jones & The Dreams.
Perhaps learning from Chicago‘s high-stakes approach of casting stars and hoping they could sing, Dreamgirls‘ players are predominantly singers who can really act. Beyoncé channels Diana Ross to perfection, Eddie Murphy tears up the stage and Jennifer Hudson steals the show in her acting debut, delivering such a powerhouse performance that Aretha Franklin immediately asked the American Idol finalist to play her in what would become this year’s biopic Respect.
Dreamgirls succeeds where the (admittedly entertaining) Christina Aguilera vehicle Burlesque fails: a recognisable relationship with reality, songs that serve the story instead of stopping the story to have a song, and a pop star whose acting makes you feel more than merely embarrassed.