Imperfect Pitch 

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Where did their love go?: Dreamgirls’ faux Supremes are more like the Cheese Lover’s, at least in terms of song material.
Dreamgirls
Dir. Bill Condon; writ. Condon, Book by Tom Eyen; feat. Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover, Jennifer Hudson, Anika Noni Rose, Keith Robinson, Sharon Leal (PG-13)

As an expected frontrunner in a dozen Oscar categories and the showcase for much-anticipated performances by celebrities looking to stretch their legs, Dreamgirls arrives in theaters dragging more buzz than your average high-profile adaptation.

Seen, though, by a viewer with no foreknowledge of the source material, the film works splendidly on almost every level except the one you’d think is guaranteed: The songs stink.

Clearly, plenty of people in America disagree with that assessment (studios rarely make multi-million-dollar films out of Broadway musicals that weren’t hits, after all). This is hard to believe, especially when you consider that most of those fans are old enough to know firsthand the miraculous, world-changing pop music that inspired this play. Dreamgirls wants to evoke Soul music from the slightly-pre-Motown era forward, but the songs sound like — well, like crappy showtunes written by a man as white as rice.

There’s simply no substance or beauty to the songs; above all, there’s no soul. A couple of exceptions pop up, but they’re generally cases in which a performer is strong enough to put middling material over the top. With pap ballads like “Family” to contend with, though, the score is a constant reminder that, outside the cineplex and on the shelves of the nearest record store, irresistible pop songs are turning up their noses at the stuff of Dreamgirls.

Let’s move on. Viewers who aren’t tripped up by the songs will have a fair batch of reasons to love the film, especially if they’re not so steeped in Soul lore that the jumbled references to real-world musicians get in the way. (Eddie Murphy, for instance, begins the film sporting elements of Sam Cooke, James Brown, and Jackie Wilson; by the end of the tale, he’s shamelessly patterned after Marvin Gaye’s tragic phase.)

The casting could almost not be better: Beyoncé, predictably, handles the trip from wide-eyed dreamer to seen-it-all star with aplomb; Jamie Foxx has a parallel evolution, from snake-oil charmer to soulless mogul. Eddie Murphy makes up for years of treading water, burning the stage with charisma; he can’t quite conjure the demons his character faces late in the film, but those scenes go by quickly. Most impressive is Jennifer Hudson: Those of us who are ignorant of all things related to American Idol (the first-time actress was discovered on the show) are in for a shock.

Writer/director Bill Condon ably massages some pretty familiar showbiz storylines — betrayal, selling out, drugs and infidelity — into something that almost feels fresh, and his crew of high-gloss costumers and stage designers adds plenty of — what do they call it? — razzle-dazzle. (Though one might ask why this all-black cast needs a white director, Condon at least came to the gig naturally, after helping breathe new life into Broadway movies with his Chicago screenplay.) As a film, Dreamgirls can stand up proud. Whether you’ll be humming its tunes on the way to your car, though, is a matter of taste.


More by John DeFore

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