I just watched Dreamgirls, the Best Musical or Comedy of the Year according to the Golden Globes. The movie, starring Beyonce Knowles and Jamie Foxx, has skyrocketed "American Idol" non-winner Jennifer Hudson to stardom (and an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress) and earned Eddie Murphy an Oscar nomination as well. There was a lot of fuss when Dreamgirls didn't make the cut as a Best Picture nominee at the Academy Awards, or when it didn't win Best Song, but it is clear why neither events happened...
To tackle the first surprise, Dreamgirls didn't get nominated at the Oscars because it isn't good enough to be nominated. I'm not saying that all five of the movies nominated were spectacular choices (where... the... hell... was Pan's Labyrinth? And Children of Men?), but Dreamgirls is a good drama/musical with lots of glam and acting and visuals... and it's not a great drama. This is not a knock against writer/director Bill Condon, who did Kinsey and Gods and Monsters (and wrote Oscar-winner Chicago), but Dreamgirls is a movie about singers... and we've seen this kind of film before. The group, theoretically not based on The Supremes but certainly based on The Supremes, goes through its ups-and-downs as egos, money and emotions get in the way of what really matters: the music. While well done, it's not original stuff, and Condon is lucky to have made as good of a film as he did.
To touch on my second point, Dreamgirls didn't win Best Song because it just has too many good songs to count. Nominated for three competing songs, Dreamgirls lost out to the forgettable Melissa Etheridge song for An Inconvenient Truth. Not one slaps, but two! That's what a movie gets for trying to sing its way to the podium! Anyway, when you have three songs that are all better than the other two songs in the race, those three are going to cancel each other out and you're going to get a Bill Clinton victory over George Bush, Sr. It's sad, because the music in Dreamgirls is sensational. Whether it's Beyonce or Hudson, or even Eddie Murphy (who would have guessed?), the music is absolutely wonderful.
I'll admit it, though - I didn't know Dreamgirls was a musical. Sure, I knew it had lots of music in it, but a movie about the music industry is not a musical (though somehow Ray won as such at the Golden Globes despite being neither a comedy nor musical). When the characters broke into song in a middle of an argument, however, I was thrown for a loop, and I can't say this was the best move on Condon's part. Sure, the actresses can sing and Condon knows they are his greatest asset, but there is enough music in the movie that more is not needed during the dialogue-driven sequences. The "argument songs" are actually quite good, but definitely take away from the dramatic impact of the story.
Furthermore, none of the characters are especially deep. Perhaps there are too many of them, or perhaps Condon didn't balance things right, but I never felt like I got to know any single character to the point where I should really care. Hudson is great, but her character is such a bitch and Condon never develops her beyond that to where I ever cared whether she made a comeback or not. Beyonce's character is also quite interesting, as she is essentially stuck by contract to her husband (Foxx), but she too doesn't get much time to show off what she's truly like. Murphy is perhaps the most dynamic character, but he is also a secondary character and doesn't get as much screen time. A little more focus and a little less singing could have given the character development angle a bit more strength, and in turn could have really moved Dreamgirls into the spotlight.
All in all, despite its flaws and lack of real dramatic impact, Dreamgirls is still an entertaining spectacle. The music is sensational, the acting fantastic and the direction quite good. It is a well done film, but a well done film that just focused on the wrong things. Recommended, but don't expect an Oscar winner.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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