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Dreamgirls: Two-Disc Showstopper Edition

With the success of Rob Marshall's 2002 screen adaptation of Chicago, another Broadway-to-film project seemed inevitable — and Hollywood chose Michael Bennett's 1981 hit Dreamgirls, the much-loved stage production based oh-so-loosely on the rise of the Supremes and Motown Records founder Berry Gordy. The 2006 adaptation, directed by Chicago screenwriter Bill Condon, is pretty darn good for the most part, with Condon finding ways to transform the stagier, more artificial numbers into something that works cinematically. But there are a couple of huge problems with Dreamgirls that Condon was unable to overcome. The first is endemic to almost all stage musicals when they're brought to the screen — the very nature of the way the characters interact with each other and the kind of songs that they're singing are far too broad and bombastic for the intimate quality of film. Marshall's Chicago worked so well because of his conceit of having the musical numbers serve as extensions of the characters' inner thought processes. It also didn't hurt that the songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb are very good, which Dreamgirls' writer Tom Eyen and composer Henry Krieger fail to match. The songs in Dreamgirls, and there are many, are not only big, loud, and over-the-top in classic Broadway fashion, but they all sound remarkably alike.

And this is the other reason that Dreamgirls doesn't really work as a movie — ironically, it's because the music isn't very good. At least, it's not very good pop or rhythm and blues, which is what most of it's supposed to be. Starting at the very top of the film, when the Dreamettes (Beyonce Knowles, Jennifer Hudson, and Anika Noni Jones) are appearing at a Detroit talent competition, the songs don't sound like late-'50s R&B — they're R&B-flavored Broadway showtunes, slickly produced for the (dare we say it?) predominantly white Broadway audience. Otis Redding/James Brown analog Jimmy Early (Eddie Murphy) fares slightly better with his first song, "Fake Your Way to the Top," but it's R&B Lite, much like the "rock and roll" songs in Broadway shows like "Bye Bye Birdie" and "Grease" are showtunes imitating rock while maintaining that easily palatable stage-musical consistency. It's easy to see why so many people loved the show on Broadway, with its faux-edgy look at the way promoters like Berry Gordy (here represented as the snake-like Curtis Taylor. Jr., played by Jamie Foxx) worked tirelessly to gain national recognition for the acts they recorded and represented, but who also owned the artists body, soul, and checkbook. Knowles was a good choice for the bland-but-beautiful lead singer Deena Jones, for the obvious reasons. The character gets one (big, loud, sounds like all the others) number at the end of the film, which one can only assume was put in place so that whatever actress is playing Deena can show that she actually has some serious pipes — in the film, it's hardly necessary, because pretty much anyone watching the movie is already familiar with Knowles' singing talents.

While newcomer Jennifer Hudson may not have entirely deserved her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as Effie — the talented, amply built singer who gets booted from the group — it isn't because she's not impressive in the role. Her show-stopping rendition of Effie's walk-out, hissy-fit anthem, "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going" is powerful and cringe-inducing at the same time — one thing that people who've never seen Dreamgirls but who adore that song fail to realize is that when Effie sings it she's just lost everything (much of it because she's been a huge pain in the ass every step of the way) and the song is an expression of her embarrassing, pathetic, what-about-me egocentricity. It's hardly the "you go girl" empowerment tune that the kids who cover it on "American Idol" would have you believe. As a follow-up to Chicago, Condon's film is something of a letdown. The previous adaptation was so fresh, original, and cinematic, while Dreamgirls is simply another competent, filmed document of a Broadway show — one that can be embraced by those who already love the stage version, but which won't win over many new viewers who are hoping for a great movie musical. It certainly won't impress anyone who loves real R&B, Motown, and early rock music.

Paramount's two-disc "Showstopper Edition" of Dreamgirls offers the main feature on the first disc, and it's technically lovely — a rich, bright, clean-as-a-whistle anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with impressively good DD 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio (English, with French, English, or Spanish subtitles). The first disc also includes a pallid music video featuring Knowles, 11 extended scenes, and one number that was cut from the film, "Effie, Sing My Song" with Hudson and Keith Robinson, who plays Effie's brother, C.C. Disc Two offers up a two-hour feature — seriously — entitled Building the Dream on the making of the film, starting with its origins on Broadway and covering everything from costumes to set design to rehearsal footage with the same slickness and lack of real soul as the film itself. Some of the rehearsal clips from that featurette are recycled as "behind-the-scenes" clips, and there are three other, shorter featurettes, to boot — "Dream Logic: Film Editing" does a fine job of showing just why movies are so freakin' expensive to produce, illustrating how many hours of footage are shot for a couple of minutes of screen time (4 min.); "Dressing the Dreams: Costume" presents costume sketches shown side-by-side with the finished product, with commentary by costumer Sharen Davis (8 min.); and "Center Stage: Theatrical Lighting" looks at, um, the lighting (9 min.). Still want more? There's also previsualization sequences, and four different stills galleries. Whew. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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