Wow. Just wow. What a stunningly exuberant and marvelously crafted movie Dreamgirls is, and how much fun it is to watch. It succeeds where recent musicals (Rent, The Producers) have failed: by combining dance-in-your-seat music with moments of great emotional intensity, and doing so with a cast of seasoned pros and phenomenal newcomers. This movie is going to win many, many Oscars.
Loosely based on the Supremes, it's the story of three girls from Detroit who love to sing and dream of hitting it big. The girls' personalities are as different as their taste in men. The star-struck Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) is enamored with James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy), for whom the girls sing back-up vocals after being discovered and signed by their new manager, Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx). The cynical Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) soon falls for Curtis, while the idealistic third member of the trio, Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles), stays single long enough for the band to find moderate success. Betrayals follow, including James' firing of his manager, Marty Madison (Danny Glover), and Effie's songwriting brother C.C. (Keith Robinson) staying loyal to Curtis instead of his sister.
The dramatic thrust of writer/director Bill Condon's (who also wrote Chicago) story feeds perfectly into the music. Working from the 1981 Broadway book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and the music of Henry Krieger, the songs evolve from the Motown R&B sound of the Sixties into the disco sounds of the Seventies, with some passionate gospel ballads thrown into the mix. Notable songs include "Steppin' to the Bad Side," which ironically welcomes the group into success; the very tender and lovely "Family" and "One Night Only," which is wonderful as both a simple ballad and as an upbeat disco mix. But the real showstopper is Effie's "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," which is sung with such passion and emotion that it will likely cause audience members to break into applause.
Four original songs were written by Krieger for the movie, including "Listen," during which Knowles shows off her great voice with an inspired solo that expresses all of Deena's thoughts and emotions. But we already knew Knowles and Foxx could sing, and Robinson won a Tony award for the musical Caroline, or Change in 2004. We knew Murphy could sing, too, but not this well, and we certainly didn't know his acting could connect with such poignancy.
Talented as the cast is, the movie really belongs to Hudson, whose dream has emphatically come true. Two years ago, she finished in the top on American Idol, and now she's locked up a Supporting Actress Academy Award. We knew she could sing, but we didn't know she had natural comic timing, a dominating screen presence and the ability to break our heart. Her performance is an absolute knockout.
The status of Dreamgirls in the pantheon of great movie musicals obviously remains to be seen, but take note that you heard it here first: the Oscar race is over, and Dreamgirls is its new king. It's not only the songs that capture our attention, but also the vivid look of the costumes and sets, and of course Condon's wonderfully deliberate pacing that allows us to enjoy every soul-searching, heartbreaking moment. This is everything you can ask of a movie, and then some.