Reigning supreme

Stellar performances make Dreamgirls a good time from the get-go

I FEEL GOOD!<br> Eddie Murphy puts on a thunderous performance with the Dreamettes in <i>Dreamgirls</i>.

Eddie Murphy puts on a thunderous performance with the Dreamettes in Dreamgirls.

Starring Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson. Directed by Bill Condon.
Rated 4.0

Dreamgirls has the emotional wallop of an old-fashioned movie musical. But it’s also a good deal fresher than that “old-fashioned” tag might suggest.

Based on a hit Broadway stage musical from 1981, the Golden Globes best-picture winner follows the career of a Motown trio (called the Dreamettes in the story, but clearly based on Diana Ross and her cohorts in the original Supremes). The history of Motown music, along with the life story of Berry Gordy Jr., hovers in the margins throughout, and it all plays out as a lively variation on the classic backstage musical, a show-biz romance with black characters performing in a ‘60s-and-'70s setting.

This half-familiar scenario—professional ups and downs, triumphs and betrayals, etc.—strides through a series of emotionally charged musical numbers. Director Bill Condon and company have staged it in vivid style from start to finish, and a steady stream of live-wire musical performances has everything to do with several key characterizations.

The film is great fun right from the start, with the Dreamettes (Beyoncé Knowles, Jennifer Hudson and Anika Noni Rose) getting their first big break singing back-up for sex-machine soul singer James “Thunder” Early (a knockout performance by Eddie Murphy). And it never lets up.

But the production rises to another level midway with an extended break-up sequence in which car dealer/music mogul Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) kicks the rebel/misfit Effie (American Idol alumna Hudson) out of the Dreamettes. That pivotal moment plays out in two successive and much-extended musical numbers, the latter of which is Hudson’s show-stopping rendition of the heartbroken, defiant “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.”

Murphy has several outstanding moments, musical and otherwise. (He won a Golden Globe this week, as did Hudson.) The other original Dreamettes, Rose as the complaisant Lorelle and Beyoncé as Deena (the Diana Ross figure), have occasion to shine as well. Some of Foxx’s best work comes in moments when his character finds himself forced to listen to—and really hear—one of his “dreamgirls.”

It should be added that Dreamgirls is not an anthology of Motown originals, and neither Tom Eyen’s original 1981 stage script nor Condon’s adaptation of it qualifies as serious biographical history. The movie sets off some unusually sharp entertainment, but for the straight scoop on the Motown story and the music, you should look elsewhere.