‘Dreamgirls’ leaves this American idle

Carly at the Movies column by Carl Larsen

Alas, the Golden Age of Musicals is long gone. Might as well toss in the Silver Age of Musicals and the Bronze Age of Musicals as well. And the latest big, splashy Broadway musical to be brought to the screen, “Dreamgirls,” is just more proof that if you want the glitter and swank of the Great White Way, rent the DVD of 1985’s “A Chorus Line.”

I hate to be so negative about a movie that’s about to grab a bunch of Academy Award nominations, but I think the flaws of “Dreamgirls” (currently running in Harrisonburg and Charlottesville venues) outweigh the strengths.

The film, written and directed by veteran Bill Condon, is based on the Broadway hit about 20 years in the life of a female singing group and the backstage drama surrounding them. Their rags-to-riches story is pretty cliché, the characters are paper thin, and the music is lively, but the lyrics are just so-so; all of which means that it runs an awfully long two hours and 11 minutes.

Let’s look at those three elements of the film, then wrap it up and blame it all on the director: First of all, the most important part of any film, the story. (“In the beginning was the word,” remember?) It begins in the early ’60s at a talent contest in Detroit, and follows a groovy singing trio and their managers, lovers and families through all the trials and backstage tribulations you find in every musical movie ever made.

Broken hearts, misunderstandings, the lust for power and fame and all that other familiar stuff abounds. Plus, there are script problems that a professional writer/director such as Bill Condon should have recognized and fixed. I won’t divulge them. It would only spoil your disappointment when the corny contrived conclusion comes calling. And why beat a dead horse, anyway?

Then there’s the cast. The Big Whoop of this movie is supposed to be Jennifer Hudson’s breakout debut as a great singer. You remember her, of course – the Number Six Runner-Up in the 2004 season of “American Idol.” She’s got a powerful voice, no doubt about it. Reminds me of a young Streisand, in fact. And in this film, they give her character a ‘tude as big as her voice. Just a smidge of humility would have made her a bit more likeable, but if you’re a big fan of “American Idol,” you’ll probably love her.

Beyonce Knowles plays one of the other Dreams, and she’s absolutely gorgeous. As far as eye candy goes, the gals in this show are totally beautiful, and only enhanced by the outstanding production design.

Eddie Murphy, playing a hyperkinetic Rhythm and Blues singer, gives one of his best performances ever (in a tremendously uneven career) and retreats to his standard mugging personae in only one scene. He’s good. Best thing in the movie, I think. Jamie Foxx, coolly playing the stereotyped power-hungry manager, unfortunately had less to work with.

A lesser-known performer (in movies, at least) is Anika Nonie Rose, the third Dream in the Dreamgirl trio. She’s very cute, bubbling with personality, good voice, and very enjoyable performance. She’s mostly a Broadway performer, but I hope she continues in film.

Two other performances really deserve note. Sharon Leal and Loretta Devine appeared together in the old “Boston Public” TV series, and both were outstanding in “Dreamgirls.” Devine, who has only one song, appeared in the original Broadway production of this show, as one of the trio. On screen, she’s a classy jazz singer at a wake.

Which leaves us with the music – which was written by the late Tom Eyen. Well, it won a Tony Award in 1982 on Broadway. But frankly, I thought it was basically pretty pedestrian. If they had utilized some of the great R & B, Motown, Pop, Soul or even Disco songs from within that 20-year timeframe, I think this show could have gone through the roof. Instead, it went through the floor.

Meanwhile, back at the Dixie:

Three very different films are headlining at the Li’l Theatre That Could this week. “We Are Marshall” is the somber but eventually uplifting tale of a tragedy and its aftermath, starring Matthew McConaughy. “Curse of the Golden Flower” is a lavish tale from the recent genre of films full of floating sword-fighters and awkward voiceovers. And finally, Leonardo DiCaprio might very well pick up an Oscar Nom for his role in “Blood Diamond,” a Message-filled Action Adventure.

The Redskins missed the NFL playoffs, so no reason to sit home and mope. Head out to the popcorn palace and catch a flick. I wouldn’t mind seeing “Happy Feet” again. It lingers at the Dixie in Staunton.


Carl Larsen is a regular contributor to The New Dominion. Look for his At the Movies column on Mondays.


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