The Sort-Of Supremes Movie -
Directed by Bill Condon, 2006Get the DVDCDs: soundtrack, 2001 concert, and original Broadway castPosters here
Let's assume the title ladies do not mirror the Supremes. Movie-dom's--and Broadway's--Deena Jones is not Diana Ross. Effie White is not Florence Ballard. Lorrell Robinson is not Mary Wilson. Effie replacement Michelle Morris is not Flo replacement Cindy Birdsong.
So they're distinctive figures in a film not at all based on Motown's starriest female singers
(whom I describe in my Supremes biography
Mary Wilson describes in hers.)
Will these Dreamgirls make you happy?
Yeah, yeah, yeah!
Pardon my alliteration as I describe the good stuff.
Visual vividness. In order to work, movies must transport us from our ordinary realities and immerse us in their fictional worlds. Especially movies that are also musicals. Especially movie musicals that evoke the exuberant Motown era. And especially Motown-inspired movie musicals with the word “dream” in the title.
To that end, this film succeeds. The costumes, lighting, and overall art direction are stunning, ultra-bold and bright but still classy. They're also well researched--I mean, uncannily similar to items related to the Supremes. Movie viewers who know their album covers, for instance, might enjoy remembering reality for a moment.
Vocal virtuosity. While Jennifer Hudson's acting as pushed-aside Effie is just pretty good (Academy Award notwithstanding), her singing keeps her overall performance rating sky-high. Director Condon shoots the show-stopper, “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” (made legendary by Broadway's Jennifer Holliday), as just that. Hudson is theatrically enthralling here.
The nicest surprise is Eddie Murphy. Despite his dubious singing credentials (anyone remember his '80s hit, “Party All the Time”?), his fading, James Brown/Marvin Gaye-esque soul star is joyously gritty in voice. The comedian's charisma greatly enhances his ribald presence, and even his offstage moments ring with convincing egotism, desperation, and pathos.
Very, very good casting (so much for alliteration). Beyoncé Knowles makes a decent Deena because she does look--and sound--like an “acceptably” willowy mainstream lead. Anika Noni Rose is a sweetly funny Lorrell and Danny Glover grounds the spectacle as avuncular manager Marty. Jamie Foxx's Berry Gordy--I mean, Curtis Taylor--lacks punch but looms well.
Dreamgirls becomes a pseudo-Supremes movie--and a less effective film--when it tries to give real historical context. The intent to educate is admirable, but the visual references are so cursory that they trivialize the era's sociopolitical issues and detract from the fantasy experience.
Also, the songs aren't pop-soul classics. But that's okay--Dreamgirls the musical was an original homage, not an onstage jukebox. Otherwise prosaic pieces like “Move” and the title song have shimmery bridges. “When I First Saw You” poignantly humanizes Curtis. With repeated CD listening, the whole set has grown on me.
(There's the movie soundtrack, but Audra McDonald's 2001 concert and the 1982 Broadway version are other options.)
The characters are types and the saga ties up a bit too neatly. But this film isn't meant to be a psychological study or a boundary-breaking narrative. Dreamgirls is solid, eye-popping, ear-tickling entertainment trying to evoke the style and spirit of girl groups like the Supremes. Movie fans seeking exactly that should be delighted.
From a Supremes movie to a Temptations miniseries, truth-inspired fantasies to undisguised bios: Click here for my main Motown film page.
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