Ahead of the pack with eight nominations, Dreamgirls had a lot of buzz leading up to this year’s Academy Awards. In the midst of it all, there was talk of a surprise standout performance by American Idol alumnus Jennifer Hudson in her first film role, and even more surprisingly, Pluto Nash – I mean, Eddie Murphy was up for best supporting actor.
With that many nominations, Dreamgirls, in yet another surprise, was not up for the coveted best picture Oscar. And after the dust settled, the film had been honored with just two of the golden statues, for Jennifer Hudson as best supporting actress and best achievement in sound mixing. No best picture nod and so few wins seemed to say, ‘yeah, your movie had a lot of good parts, some even great, but they didn’t add up to something more.’
And that’s pretty much bang-on for how I felt about this show-business extravaganza. Dreamgirls is the story of three women, black soul singers, who rise to pop fame, and the people who help get them there – mentor James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy, Bowfinger), songwriter C.C. White (Keith Robinson, Power Rangers Light Speed Rescue) and controlling manager Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx, Ray). It’s also about classic show-biz tales like how rough it was for black performers to get ahead in the early days, and the tough dynamics of pop group with uneven levels of talent and sex appeal.
Being a musical, Dreamgirls is – of course – also all about the music. There’s a lot, and much of it is high-energy and catchy, or at least enjoyable while you’re experiencing it. The film is an adaptation of the hit musical from the early 80’s, so there was plenty of strong material to start with, and the filmmakers actually added in some new numbers for the movie. Thing is, very few of the songs are memorable, with one big exception being And I’m Telling You I Am Not Going, a true showstopper sung by Jennifer Hudson.
Bringing us the music is a great ensemble cast. Highlights here include Eddie Murphy, Jamie Foxx, Danny Glover (Saw) as James Early’s wizened manager, Beyoncé Knowles (The Pink Panther) as the Dreamgirls’ lead singer, Anika Noni Rose (Temptation) as another Dreamgirl, Keith Robinson and, of course, Jennifer Hudson as Cinderella Effi White. In other words, every member of this ensemble pulled their own weight. I agreed with the Academy singling out only Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson, though, because these actors all turned in good performances, but they weren’t all special.
So what held Dreamgirls back? For me it was two things, beginning with the music. A great musical has to have great music, and frankly, most of these songs just don’t cut it. Remember, the story is essentially a tribute to the rise of Motown and incredible acts like The Supremes, James Brown and Marvin Gaye. The songs of Dreamgirls simply don’t stack up against true classic hits. You might call it an unfair comparison, but I say you get what you ask for. My second complaint is about dramatic tension. The film moves along very smoothly, with gobs of glitz and glamour, but when a dramatic scene is required it just pops up without much development. It’s almost like Bill Condon, who directed the film and adapted the screenplay, just pointed to spots here and there, thought, ‘hey, we need some conflict here,’ and tossed something in. These moments are thus more like plot devices than actual story.
Of course, it’s easy to gloss over these flaws when you’re distracted by the spectacle. As the film follows decades of the music business, we’re treated to a smorgasbord of style and fashion and evolution of the R&B sound. It’s all done very well, but at times it just feels like paint on the walls of a ramshackle house.
So Dreamgirls delivers on spectacle without much substance. How’s the DVD?
Dreamgirls – Two-disc Showstopper Edition is presented two discs, with the film on disc one in 2.35:1 widescreen format. It looks really good, no doubt about it. From shiny chrome on the classic cars to smoky theatre interiors and complex lighting schemes, everything on screen is nicely detailed and flush with gorgeous, rich colours. This movie was something to see on the big screen, and that’s still true to an extent here. High marks.
Menus are animated and scored.
Main English audio comes by way of a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. The music sounds great, but at times it nearly overpowers some of the dialogue. You won’t strain to hear the words, but you’ll probably notice things sound a bit off. Otherwise, there’s solid use of the full sound stage to deliver the film’s many great performances, and the surround channels are used to good effect when appropriate.
Audio is also offered in English in Dolby Digital 2.0, and French in Dolby Digital 5.1. Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.
Dreamgirls – Two-disc Showstopper Edition brings down the house in the bonus material department, with literally hours of extras. Here’s the rundown:
On disc one:
- Never-Before-Seen Extended Musical Numbers : 12 songs, running about 36 minutes. If you enjoyed the movie’s musical numbers, you’ll be happy to sit back and take in these songs, which include a ballad by Jennifer Hudson.
- Beyoncé Knowles “Listen” Music Video: the title pretty much sums this one up. It’s Beyoncé, in a music video, singing a song with interspersed clips from the film. Next up, Colonel Mustard, in the observatory…
On disc two:
- Building the Dream: at nearly two hours in length, this is a pretty thorough making-of feature. From the original Broadway musical to pre-production, filming and the premiere, this one says it all.
- Dream Logic – Film Editing: much shorter at about four minutes, this is still an interesting look at editing Dreamgirls. We get a glimpse into editor Virginia Katz’s daunting task, and how she went about it.
- Dressing the Dreams – Costume Design: this one runs about eight minutes, and presents the vision of designer Sharen Davis. She discusses how each character’s costumes relate to his or her personality, interspersed with clips of the film and concept sketches.
- Center Stage – Theatrical Lighting: lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Lisehauer spend about nine minutes discussing how they applied their trade to contribute to the production. The most interesting stuff here is how they adhered to the film’s time periods, using simple equipment that would have been available back then.
- Original Auditions and Screen Tests: three separate auditions here, one for Beyoncé in costume singing Dreamgirls, one for Anika Noni Rose performing Ain’t No Party, and a choreography audition for choreographer Fatima Robinson with three dancers moving to Steppin’ to the Bad Side.
- Previsualization Sequences: for seven musical numbers, each ranging in length from three to nine minutes. They feature a combination of live shots, storyboards and sketches.
- Image Gallery: a wide selection divided into four categories – storyboards, costume designs, production designs and art department archives.
Dreamgirls is entertaining, but flawed. I think it was over hyped in its Oscar campaign, which probably hurt more than helped its chances, since greater expectations are harder to meet. In any case, this DVD is sure to satisfy fans. Recommended.
< p>Special Features List
- Building the Dream, feature-length making-of documentary
- Never-Before-Seen Musical Numbers and Extended Scenes
- Beyoncé Knowles “Listen” Music Video
- Dream Logic – Film Editing
- Dressing the Dreams – Costume Design
- Center Stage – Theatrical Lighting
- Original Auditions and Screen Tests
- Previsualization Sequences
- Image Gallery