The title of the motion picture is Dreamgirls but it could have been called A Star Is Born.
American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson absolutely walks away with this big, splashy dazzler of a film, based on the 1981 Broadway musical, even before performing her plaintive, show-stopping number, And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going - and that's quite a feat.
Writer-director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey), who was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar for best-picture winner Chicago, has crafted an enormously entertaining, technically triumphant film. In following the rise of a Supremes-style Detroit trio - played by Ms. Hudson, Beyonce Knowles and Anika Noni Rose - the music, choreography, costumes, lighting and makeup are all superb. The editing is consistently fluid, the energy high.
Dreamgirls is vastly more successful than other revered stage productions that have come to the screen recently - The Phantom of the Opera, Rent and The History Boys - which maintained the core of their content and, as a result, seemed too structured, too clunky.
Still, the ending is so rushed it'll make your head spin (Mr. Condon really crams a lot into those last 20 minutes or so). The whole thing can be hard to take seriously - especially And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going, which in the past 25 years has become a favorite drag-queen anthem and now sounds a bit bombastic.
When Ms. Hudson does end up going, though, the movie goes with her, and it perks right back up again when she returns. With her huge voice and fierce presence, she proves herself a worthy successor to Jennifer Holliday, who originated the role of Effie White, headstrong lead singer of the Dreamettes.
Jamie Foxx is sufficiently sleazy as the group's two-timing manager, car salesman Curtis Taylor, with Eddie Murphy revisiting his Saturday Night Live James Brown impression as R&B sex machine Jimmy Early. (In one rambling performance, he doesn't jump back and kiss himself, but he does grunt and thrust and strip down to his skivvies.)
Curtis takes over the trio after seeing them perform at an amateur night and promptly begins romancing the feisty Effie, who drops her guard and lets herself fall in love with him. The notoriously philandering Jimmy, meanwhile, sets his sights on the small, meek one of the three, Ms. Rose's Lorell, as they all begin touring and recording together, with the trio serving as Jimmy's backup singers.
It doesn't take long for Curtis to move the Dreamettes out from behind Jimmy and onto center stage, renaming them the Dreams and making Ms. Knowles' Deena - who's prettier and lighter-skinned than Effie - the lead singer, though even Deena concedes she lacks Effie's formidable pipes.
Deena also replaces Effie in Curtis' bed, sparking a rift that sends Effie spiraling while the rest of the group becomes stratospherically successful with fill-in singer Michelle (Sharon Leal). As Deena becomes the most visible member of the trio (with the inevitable comparisons to Ms. Knowles' role in Destiny's Child becoming glaringly obvious) it's hard to tell whether Curtis is in love with the woman or merely dependent on her as a product.
Though Ms. Knowles' voice is as strong as Ms. Hudson's in her own poppy way, she still needs to beef up in the acting department; your main memory of her performance in Dreamgirls will be that she looked good.
Mr. Murphy digs deep for the first time in a long time - possibly the first time ever. The wild partying takes a toll on Jimmy, who's ultimately left with nothing he can rely on besides his heroin habit.
This is Ms. Hudson's movie all the way. By the way, who was it that won American Idol the season she was on there? Never mind - she turned out more than fine.
STUDIO: Paramount Pictures
MPAA RATING: PG-13 for language, some sexuality and drug content
RUNNING TIME: 131 minutes
THE VERDICT: *** out of ****
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