Tuesday, December 26, 2006


As the lights came down for the beginning of "Dreamgirls," with a packed house on hand for the first screening in Middle Georgia, I couldn't help but think how odd it was to be watching a movie about the slow death of real soul music on the day we found out that one of its true believers, James Brown, had died.

In Bill Condon's movie adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, however, there's still plenty of soul to be found in the performances of its stars, one diva on top of the game and one who's claiming her own little slice of the pie.

It is loosely based on Diana Ross and the Supremes, but Condon knows well it's much more importantly about the rise and fall of the Motown empire, and he has all the skills required to grasp that rather tall task.

And, much more importantly, this movie is about Jennifer Hudson, even moreso than I could have imagined going in. She just eats up the screen in every moment she's on, and without exagerration I can't remember seeing a star rise with so much power and grace.

The story here is about the rise of a girl-group trio consisting of Hudson, the fairly famous Beyonce Knowles and Anika Noni Rose. After performing at a talent competition in Detroit, they're discovered by a car salesman and would-be talent scout (Jamie Foxx) and hired to tour as the opening act for James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy, who's clearly having fun doing his best impression of the Godfather himself, with more than a little of Macon's own Otis Redding thrown in for good measure.)

It quickly becomes a battle of divas as Foxx, after flirting with Hudson's Effie White as his leading lady, manages to book the ladies on a solo tour, but announces Beyonce's Deena will be the leader of the group now known as the Dreams.

As might be expected, Ms. Hudson doesn't take this news too well, but even if predictable, her progression is still dramatic. She starts out with the body and voice of Aretha (again, no exaggeration, and not a compliment I wield lightly), but progresses into someone akin to Phoebe Snow, neither of whom would have found much favor in the slick world of Motown.

Every diva needs a showstopper, and Hudson gets it here with the number "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." It's a thoroughly raw moment, and it drew hearty applause from the audience (which I normally frown upon, but here, why not? She certainly earned it.) My favorite moment, however, comes when she first learns of the betrayal, and the pained look on her face as her backstabbers embrace her as a backup with the treacly "Family."

The only question I was left with afterward was, never having seen "American Idol," who the hell could have beaten her? The Golden Globe, and more importantly the Oscar, for Best Supporting Actress will be hers, and it will be well-deserved.

And Beyonce, being, well, Beyonce, has earned a lot of notice herself, not all unmerited. She deserves credit here for giving in to the fact that, though her Deena is picked to be the star of the Dreams, it's only for her looks. She plays it low-key until her own diva moment with the song "Listen." By then it's no longer her show, and seeing her realize this just works if you give in to it.

My only real beef with the movie came in one very unfortunate scene with Mr. Murphy. Donning the style of knit skullcap favored by Marvin Gaye, his James Early performs a dismal ditty entitled "Patience" as an attempted comeback. As the title implies, it's just the sort of faux-protest song that tones down its message enough to get on the radio, and its the kind of thing that the late great Mr. Gaye never would have touched. It's a rare wrong and insulting note in this otherwise pleasing feast for the ears.

And Mr. Condon, perhaps unlike me with this review, knows exactly how to end things. You'll still be catching your breath, and though I won't confess to it, perhaps wiping your eyes, as the lights come up.

And I think even James Brown would have liked this movie. I certainly did, but I still have no plans to watch "American Idol."


Anonymous said...

Saw Black Christmas yesterday. It was everything I expected and less. Shoulda gone to Dreamgirls--oh who am I kidding? Black Christmas was the perfect Christmas movie.

Anonymous said...

Re: American Idol. There were times when Jennifer Hudson may have been the most talented singer, but she lacked subtlety and restraint as a performer. She may have been voted off early, but she didn't deserve to win.

While I didn't like her on that show, she won me over in Dreamgirls.

Mary said...

Oh, give AI a chance. I agree, she was voted off too early but would not have won - Fantasia Barrino was incredibly good.

Thanks for the Dreamgirls review. I can't wait to see it!

Reel Fanatic said...

I'm not dismissing AI by any means, Mary, it's just not my kind of thing ... I have to admit that after watching Dreamgirls I'm wavering just a bit, but I don't think I'll give in

Anonymous said...

God, I thought that was Oprah at first glance

Reel Fanatic said...

They do bare more than a little scary resemblance, thinista. At the risk of offending Oprah, however slim it might be, I dare say Ms. Hudson's weight probably hasn't fluctuated anywhere near as wildly as Oprah's!

Anonymous said...

One thing I have to admire about Jennifer Hudson is how much she apparently got into the part. From what I read, she actually gained weight for the part of Effie. With such an emphasis on being thin these days, not too many actresses would have actually done that. I really have to admire that kind of commitment.

Reel Fanatic said...

It has certainly paid off in the attention she has received, Mercurie .. I do kind of resent how Hollywood will now say it has plenty of parts for curvacious women, which is simply not true

Anonymous said...

cool to hear that they were clapping in georgia too! i usually hate it in movies, and my reaction is typically (they cannot HEAR you), but hear it just worked.

american idol was not her arena. i am an avid watcher of the show and to be honest, a rabid fan, and i just hated her from the moment she walked on to the first audition. she was too much to handle and just all balls out from the get-go. i agree with what neel mehta said -- no subtlety at all. but, no one disputed the fact that she had pipes.

my only question is, where does she go from here? i would be happy to see her on broadway -- but the great white way lacks roles for african-americans with a voice like hers and would hollywood react poorly to an oscar winner coming over to the live theatre? would she even be accepted by the nyc theatre scene? they treat all reality contestants, no matter the outcome, very harshly.

Anonymous said...

ugh, "but HERE it worked."

this is what i get for blogging after a 7 hour car trip.

Chris said...

I watch "AI" and in Season 3, Hudson was not only how neel mehta describes, but she was also going against two other very similar singers in Fantasia Barrino and La Toya London, "diva" belters. They were all in the bottom 3 at one point (one can only assume the votes split so much that they were among the lowest), even though Fantasia eventually won the whole thing. She certainly wasn't chopped liver, but Hudson got her revenge by beating her out for this role.

But, I'm sorry to say I'm a nasty little curmudgeon and I hated Dreamgirls. I thought the Hudson performance was great, especially the song "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going," which gave me chills. But then the rest of it gave me a headache. My review is here. I might be one of the only people in the nation giving this movie a big thumbs-down.

And then, not like these movies are really all that comparable, I watched Children of Men. It seems like no one is talking about this movie at all, at least not the various academies handing out awards. I can't wait until you get a chance to see this movie, RF. It's amazing. My review is here for that. I think it's one of the best of the decade.

Reel Fanatic said...

You're certainly right that she will encounter some snobbery Millie, especially from the Broadway folks, but she just has such a magnetic personality that I think she will be able to overcome it ... I'd love to see her carve out a career in genuine jazz singing, something I love but which is seriously lacking in the world now

"Dreamgirls" is certainly not for everyone, Chris, though you're right that you are the first person I've seen who didn't like it (although A.O. Scott was fairly harsh in the Times) ... I would have loved to have seen Children of Men, but movies that good rarely make it out to my little corner of the world without Academy Awards attached to them

Chris said...

I thought Dreamgirls was right up my alley, since I do tend to enjoy musicals. But as far as Children is concerned, I realize that the movie is going to be as slow as possible reaching other corners of the country, but when it gets anywhere near you, watch it the day it arrives. You won't be disappointed.

* (asterisk) said...

"The Golden Globe, and more importantly the Oscar, for Best Supporting Actress will be [Hudson's], and it will be well-deserved."

Seriously?! Shit... I quite like Condon, but I ain't got no soul, so I doubt I'll be watching this. I can't stand that Knowles woman, either. she may be the best actor in the world, but the fact that her "music" is so godawful keeps me away from anything she's in.

Now, I quite liked Hudson on American Idol, but let's calm down... Surely she's not in line for an Oscar? I may eat my words, sure, but I hope it'll be you eating yours!

Reel Fanatic said...

I will gladly do so if it comes to that, Mr. *, but if you watch this movie and still deny that she just carries every scene in a genuine breakthrough performance, I'll be shocked

Pop Culture Diva said...

neel mehta said it all. Jennifer was too much for American Idol She didn't exercise the control of her voice that she now owns. I find it interesting that they made Jennifer Hudson gain 20 pounds to play the part but Jennifer Holiday must have tipped the scale near 300 when she originated the role on Broadway. Hollywood is not ready for a truly overweight woman to be seen in a romantic light. They relegate them to comedy or mother roles.

Reel Fanatic said...

I think you're right, diva, and it probably won't change any time soon ... Actually, we're probably going to see more men in fat suits than women with even a little natural fat on them, unfortunately