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."
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
Posted by Reel Fanatic at 5:27 AM