The casting of Dreamgirls is so good, it could be too good. Just talking about how the celebrity performers parallel their big-screen counterparts can almost upstage Bill Condon's film adaptation of the Tony-winning musical.
Eddie Murphy, a comedy superstar overdue for a comeback, portrays an R&B superstar watching his career hit the skids. Acting novice Jennifer Hudson, a beloved underdog after being voted off "American Idol," plays a singer kicked out of a girl group patterned after the Supremes. Beyoncé Knowles takes on the Diana Ross role, and students of pop history can draw similarities between the breakup of Knowles' Destiny's Child and the fractured group on film.
The marquee power and electrifying musical numbers nearly overshadow the insight of Dreamgirls' actual story, which examines African-American social change through the rise and fall of musicians from the early 1960s to late '70s.
The early scenes have the whirlwind excitement of an overnight success story. The original "Dreamettes" -- power-belter Effie (Hudson) and her back-ups Deena (Knowles) and Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) -- play a live talent show and meet aspiring promoter Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx). Loosely based on Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, Curtis gets the Dreamettes their break as backup singers to Jimmy "Thunder" Early (Murphy).
Jimmy's womanizing and Effie's diva attitude spark lots of backstage drama, but that's only part of the story. Curtis hopes a tune called "Cadillac Car" can become a crossover hit, but an unauthorized white cover of the song drives the black one off the charts. Curtis resorts to payola and other criminal means to break into the business.
In the name of assimilation, Curtis turns the Dreamettes into "Deena Jones and the Dreams," turning Deena into the frontwoman. In her appearance alone, Knowles is perfect in the part, being not only one of the world's most beautiful women, but having a look that fits the early-1960s notion of the kind of African-American beauty a white audience would tolerate. Knowles probably sings more powerfully than Deena was envisioned, particularly on the passionate "Listen," a number written for the film. Effie doesn't take the demotion quietly, and when Hudson unleashes the showstopper "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," she inspired mid-movie applause at the screening I attended. Hudson may have more skill as a singer than an actress, but she commands the role with the presence of a young Aretha Franklin.
As Jimmy, Murphy's urgent, entertaining numbers at times remind us of his old "Saturday Night Live" sketches such as "James Brown's Hot Tub!" Murphy's best moment, however, involves no signing, or even speaking. When Curtis shoots down his attempt to record a "message" song, Jimmy falls back on a drug habit, and when a friend tries to dissuade him, Jimmy simply shoots a level, dead-eyed look that conveys unlimited weariness.
Deena, Effie and Jimmy all wrestle with demons, but the driving force behind Dreamgirls' plot may be Curtis, who turns into something of a demon himself. Curtis begins as a small-time entrepreneur, resisting The Man's efforts to keep black artists down. He becomes, in effect, The Man himself, and keeps down black artists who don't fall in line. Foxx makes Curtis both a charismatic hustler and an intimidating boss, but it's disappointing that Curtis doesn't get his own song in the spotlight. It's like seeing a musical of Citizen Kane that never gives Charles Foster Kane a solo.
Condon adapted the screenplay of the Rob Marshall-directed, Oscar-winning musical Chicago for the screen, but when Dreamgirls relies heavily on musical-theater conventions with characters dancing in the streets or singing emotional lines of dialogue, the tone turns awkward. Occasionally, the historical shortcuts prove a little obvious, such as the moment when two of the leads step out of the Detroit studio and into the middle of a generic-looking riot. The protesters might as well wave placards reading "Social Context!"
Such scenes suggest that the musical genre hasn't yet made a complete comeback. Dreamgirls more closely resembles a pop biopic such as Ray or Walk the Line than a classic Hollywood musical. When Dreamgirls succeeds, though, it succeeds like a dream.