Dreamgirls is a beautiful disaster. Director Bill Condon has created a masterful piece of visual and aural R&B art that, stunning though it sometimes is, never meshes together into an actual film. Instead it's a series of fantastic vocal performances. More concert than movie, I imagine the script as a stack of sheet music with yellow post-it notes stuck all over it.
Maybe concert isn't the right way to describe it. It's more like an R&B Opera. Dreamgirls tells the rise of a group of black musicians who challenged the white-biased music business with music. It's not a musical exactly, those usually come with carefully choreographed dance numbers. Instead the film focuses primarily on its characters stage performances, and then even when they step off the stage they seem to act as if they're still on it.
The Dreamettes are three-girl singing group in the mold of the Supremes. Effie (Jennifer Hudson) is a big girl, with the vocal skills of Aretha Franklin. Deena (Beyonce Knowles) and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) sing backup. They're scouted by a small time promoter named Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx), who owns a Cadillac dealership and runs amateur night at a Detroit theater. He gets them a job as back up singers for a famous, mostly local, black artist named Jimmy Ealy, played by an Eddie Murphy who seems to be having the time of his life.
Eddie's singing fantasies are no secret, and Dreamgirls is his opportunity to live out all of them vicariously through Jimmy. The result is probably Eddie's best work in years, a manic personality with a magnetic and wild stage presence. At one point Eddie seems to be having so much fun, that he comes close to breaking into his old James Brown impersonation right in the middle of the film, just for the hell of it. I'd almost forgotten Eddie could be so alive.
Curtis soon parlays his new relationship with Jimmy and The Dreams into a music empire. He makes them tone down their music to appeal to a white audience, bribes radio stations to give them more airplay. Suddenly, they've all broken through and black artists are climbing the mainstream pop charts. But there's a price for success, and things quickly fall apart.
The film draws material from a lot of rather well known musical stories. Some of it might even be ripped right from the pages of Beyonce's own rise to pop stardom with Destiny's Child. It's familiar territory, but what Condon does to set it apart is turn down all the noise and clutter of plot and character development in favor of showcasing brilliant musical performances from a group of singers who can only be classified as soul gods made flesh.
The side affect of this is that you never really get to know any of Dreamgirls' characters. They're two-dimensional figures strutting around on screen and belting out heart-wrenching songs with incredible vocal talent. None of it really means anything. There's an attempt at a story sure, but it's always as if the whole thing is always on the verge of flying completely apart. There's a moment about half way through, when you can literally feel the whole movie starting to dissolve right before your eyes. Somehow Condon pulls the thing back together, but as a complete film it's really a mess. It's a series of montages and musical acts without an overriding theme or purpose. The movie doesn't so much progress as it meanders through montages, concerts, and almost unbearably long, drawn-out breakup solos.
It's a frustrating film. I get what Condon is trying to do here, in his own way he's come up with a completely new take on movie musicals. The look and sound of what he's created is so stunning that those things alone may be enough to justify its existence. It's confident, it's exhuberant and heartfelt. But Dreamgirls is barely a movie and more of an overlong stage play full of endless musical montages. There's no real lead, it switches constantly and almost without any real reason. Without some sort of glue to hold the music together, nothing sticks. I take that back. Jennifer Hudson's voice sticks. Long after you're home and you've forgotten the movie, you'll remember Jennifer Hudson's big, belting voice. You'll remember her on stage, shaking the room as she croons for failure, success, and lost love. You'll remember the music, the stage lights, the cheering crowds. Not the movie. There is no movie. Just a stage.