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A Star is Born

Directed by Bill Condon (Kinsey, Gods and Monsters) and adapted from the 1981 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, Dreamgirls comes to the big screen after several unsuccessful attempts. Luckily, the wait was more than worth it. Dreamgirls was and is “loosely” (not too loosely, actually) based on Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Ross’ later career as a solo artist. The movie's producers picked an experienced hand in writer-director Bill Condon; he also adapted Chicago’s translation from stage to screen, an Academy Award winner for Best Picture four years ago.

Dreamgirls follows an all-female pop group, the Dreamettes -- Effie Melody White (Jennifer Hudson), the leader singer, and her two closest friends, Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles), and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) -- from the early 60s through the mid-70s. The “heavyset” Effie has a diva-quality voice, but Deena has the “best looks”, at least by conventional standards. Lorrell seems comfortable as a backup singer regardless of who’s leading the group. Together with "C.C." White (Keith Robinson), Effie's brother, writing and arranging their songs, the Dreamettes seem destined for success.

Taking their act to Amateur Night at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, the Dreamettes’ performance brings to the attention of used car salesman-turned-impresario Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx). Curtis becomes their manager. Almost immediately, Curtis finesses a gig for the Dreamettes as backup singers for a popular R&B artist, James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy). When Curtis finally decides it’s time for the Dreamettes to go it alone, though, he chooses Deena to lead the group, forcing Effie into a backup role. Curtis also gives the group a new name, Deena and the Dreams. Commercial success awaits Deena and the Dreams, but not Effie. Effie’s unpredictable behavior forces Curtis to replace her with another singer, Michelle Morris (Sharon Leal).

Post breakup, Dreamgirls shifts to give Deena more screen time, relegating Effie to a secondary storyline. Unfortunately, Deena’s journey toward self-fulfillment and, eventually, self-reliance is more shallow and, therefore, less compelling than Effie’s struggle to regain her dignity and her singing voice after years of personal setbacks. On the plus side, with Deena given more prominence, Knowles changes outfits at a dizzying pace, bringing back memories (some better forgotten) of the gloriously kitschy 70s. That’s all to the good, but it’s hard not to feel like Effie isn’t given her proper due as Dreamgirls moves toward its inevitable denouement (because she isn’t).

Despite what the television ads or the movie posters might suggest, Dreamgirls belongs to newcomer Jennifer Hudson and her standout performance as Effie. Stepping into the role had to be difficult for Hudson, knowing that comparisons to Jennifer Holliday, the singer/actress who first essayed Effie on Broadway in 1981, were inevitable. Besides several show-stopping numbers, including Effie’s signature song, “And I Am Telling You”, Hudson has to show more emotional range than anyone else in the cast, including Beyoncé Knowles, but, and surprisingly, pulls it off. It helps, of course, that Condon had the ability to edit Hudson’s performance from multiple takes, but regardless of whether that’s true or not, it does little to diminish the quality of Hudson’s performance (or our appreciation for same).

If Dreamgirls has any faults -- and it does -- they, or rather it, can be traced to the overactive camerawork that’s become inexplicably de rigueur in contemporary Hollywood musicals. The camerawork in Dreamgirls is far more suitable to hyperkinetic action films than to contemporary musicals where moviegoers shouldn’t have any difficulty in following straightforward musical numbers. Letting the songs and performances breathe a bit more might have opened Condon to criticism that he wasn’t adding much as a director, but a more balanced approach would have blunted that criticism and made Dreamgirls a more satisfying film.

Camerawork and a wobbly second act aside, Dreamgirls shows Hollywood at its best, marshaling its financial and creative resources into a highly satisfying mix of song, dance, melodrama and, of course, performance. As for Hudson, don’t be surprised if she gets nominated for Best Supporting Actress. She may not win an Oscar (first-time performances rarely do), but with a bit of luck and the right roles, a long career ahead in film and in music awaits her.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars