I saw the pre-Broadway trial of Michael Bennet’s Dreamgirls at the Shubert Theater in Boston prior to its opening on Broadway featuring the spectacular debut of Jennifer Holiday. Even at that pre-trial stage the entire theater community already knew that we were witnessing the stuff of legends. I can still remember the excitement in the air of that wintry season. At the time I was a young , impressionable (and a struggling) Emerson College student living next to the Boston theater district. Every evening I could see the crowds lining up at Shubert to catch a glimpse of theater history. Me and my girlfriend Beth finally manage to scout tickets to what became of the most extraordinary theater experiences of our lifetime. After that we were hooked. We both kept coming back to the Shubert every night to try to sneak in during intermission for repeated viewings of Act 2. Needless to say we both became one of the many “Dreamgirls” legions of groupies that resulted, and Jennifer Holiday became our Goddess and muse.
Much has been said about Jennifer Holiday's immortal rendition of the Act 1 show stopping finale "And I Am Telling You. I Am Not Going" in which the main character Effie, an overweight singing Diva, gets fired from her singing group and simultaneously gets dumped by her man which leads to a desperate almost masochistic aria in which she begs and screams with tears and anger for her man not to leaver her. Was the number shamefully manipulative and sentimental? Absolutely! But it was precisely with such emotional cathartic moments brilliantly staged by director Michael Bennett and supported by its legendary performances that “Dreamgirls” transcended its backstage drama cliché trappings to become an unforgettable theatric event. When the film version was officially announced with its cast of Hollywood comedians and American Idol runner ups I suspected that the final result would be disastrous, sort of like what happened to Richard Attenborough’s 1985 adaptation of Bennett’s previous theatrical hit of “A Chorus Line” . But I am pleased to report that I was wrong. Very, very wrong.
Director Bill Condon’s film adaptation of “Dreamgirls” is not only phenomenal triumph that reafirms the power of film musicals but is also possibly one of the few best films of 2006. "Dreamgirls" is an ambitious musical epic that tells the story of Effie (Jennifer Hudson), Deena (Beyonce Knowles) and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose), an up-and-coming singing trio from Detroit in the 1960’s known as The Dreamettes. The film follows the Motown trio's climb to crossover stardom while embellishing their romances, success, disappointments, tears, laughter and heartbreak. But aside the backstage story, the film also provides social commentary about the civil rights movement and struggles of the nation during that era.
Dreamgirls is perhaps one of the best examples on why movie musicals were invented in the first place. It demonstrates all the exciting possibilities that this very risky and challenging genre can offer if done right. Bill Condon (who previously wrote the screen adaptation of the Academy Award-winning musical Chicago) not only directs but has also written the screen adaptation for Dreamgirls and clearly understands the rhythm, the strengths and the challenges of musical theater film adaptations. Every aspect of the film Dreamgirls confirms Bill Condon’s true love for the movie musical in the same way that he demonstrated with his "Chicago" screenplay.
He is also not afraid to re-invent some of the traditional conventions of the genre to make it more accessible to contemporary audiences. He promptly acknowledges that his biggest challenge is on how to introduce the language of musicals in a way that is credible to an audience not used to characters spontaneously breaking into song and dance. In Chicago addressed this challenge by positioning the musical interludes within the character’s internal fantasies. In Dreamgirls, he takes advantage of the story’s backstage world and introduces the early songs as live performances within a realistic setting. Then he gradually shifts to glimpses of the surreal with short segments of music and recitative delivered in a less traditional way. When the audience has been prepped for some time to the stylistic changes, Condon finds a key dramatic turn in the narrative to allow the characters to finally burst into a full blown song in the old musical theater tradition.
Henry Krieger’s score and Tom Eyen's lyrics are simply spectacular. The music can be best described as Motown channeled by more traditional Broadway rock opera style. 80% of the original score has been preserved and four new fantastic songs have been added which were written especially for the film. The highlight of the score remains “And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going,” not only because is the show’s most recognizable number, but because it’s such a raw primal emotional moment that not only moves the plot to the equivalent of a dramatic cliffhanger but because it clearly illustrate what musicals can do best (giving the characters permission to verbalize in song their internal emotional catharsis that they wouldn’t do in a realistic setting).
The choreography by Fatima Robinson is loosely inspired by Michael Bennet’s original ideas but adapted to work within the film medium. Her spectacular choreography for “ Stepping To Right Time “ number is one of the many highlights on this film. Sharen Davis' glitzy costumes and John Myhre's detailed production design complemented by cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler (Friday Night Lights) all work together for maximum eye-popping effect. It was also a brilliant move to have Broadway Award-winning lighting designer Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer to design the concert scenes.
Another unexpected surprise was in the spectacular performances of the entire cast. Jennifer Hudson's film debut as Effie is simply memorable and a sure bet for this year’s Oscar nominations. Not only does she demonstrates that she can act but she brings down the house on more than one occasion with her spectacular and electrifying singing voice. Living up to the reputation of Jennifer Holiday's stage Effie was a tough challenge but Hudson not only succeeds in taking complete ownership of the role but adds new insight as well. Her powerful rendition of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," is a landmark moment in film musical history. Eddie Murphy is a revelation and simply perfect as James Early Jimmy a glitzy showman turn drug addict. Murphy’s sharp comic edge is both hysterically funny and electrifying he also demonstrates a solid dramatic side never seen before. He also happens to be a great singer. Jamie Foxx is appropriately charismatic and vulnerable as the bad guy. Beyonce Knowles looks spectacular as Deena Jones. She effectively grasps the shy and quiet qualities of her character later to be transform into a star when she brings down the house with one the new ballads written for the film towards the end. Danny Glover is wonderful as Eddie Murphy's earlier agent and there are also some cameos by John Lithgow as a film director, John Krasinski (The Office) as a screenwriter and Loretta Devine, the original "Lorrell" and the only member from the original Broadway cast appearing in the film.
Dreamgirls is impeccably crafted, and a true labor of love. It casts an irresistible spell with its dazzling energy, deeply felt performances, lavish production values and powerful musical numbers. It is one of those movies that leaves you mesmerized wanting to see it again and again. Pure movie magic!