In the late 1950’s Detroit, three young women, Deena (Beyonce Knowles), Lorelle (Anika Noni Rose) and Effie (Jennifer Hudson), who have sung together since they were twelve-years old, get a break singing backups to James “Thunder Early (Eddie Murphy). When they are finally ready to go out on their own, helped by their manager and record producer Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx), C.C. (Keith Robinson), Effie’s brother, writes their music and she sings lead.
It’s proves difficult for the trio to make it on the charts so Taylor (who has hooked up with Effie) and C.C. replace Effie as lead singer because they think a “lighter” voice is needed to crossover to the white audience. Effie becomes difficult, is late for rehearsals. The situation is compounded by her not feeling well. Taylor and C.C. hire a new singer,
Michelle (Sharon Leal), and Effie is out. She returns home and has Taylor’s daughter. She names the baby “Magic” (Mariah I. Wilson) but never tells Taylor about the child. Meanwhile, Taylor and Deena marry and the Dreamettes become famous.
A few years later Effie approaches Marty Madison (Danny Glover), an old-fashioned promoter, and she makes a hit with a new song that C.C. writes for her. C.C. no longer works with Taylor but he fails to take care of the legal details. Taylor has Deena record the song and once again it seems that Effie is on the outside, looking in.
I loved this film from start to finish. Ten years ago I visited the Motown Museum in Detroit (Barry Gordy, Jr.’s sister gave the tour to our group) and the memory of that, plus growing up with the sounds of the Supremes (on whom the story is loosely based) and Motown, provided a context for appreciating how difficult it was to break into the charts, record sales, and air time on the radio, in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. Long before Eminem and the excellent film 8 Mile, groups like the Dreamettes, paved the way. (In real life Diana Ross took over the lead from Florence Ballard who died poor and alone at age 32.)
Dreamgirls shows the hardship of trying to make it as singers. The practice of payola (record companies paying DJ’s to play their music) that some suspect continues today, even though the practice is illegal in the United States, was just one dimension. The ambition and greed of promoters often got in the way of genuine talent and unbounded creativity leaving casualties in the stardust. Effie’s dreams are dashed over and over, and never more so when she and the group are referred to as if they were “products.” (An excellent talking point about human dignity and the consequences of the cycle of capitalist practices without the guidance of conscience.)
Dreamgirls is a 1981 Broadway musical re-imagined for the screen, and Bill Condon, who writes and directs (he also wrote the screenplay for Chicago), has elicited strong, moving performances from the cast, especially, as everyone is saying, Jennifer Hudson. I saw the film ten days ago and I can still hear her singing “I’m Changing” … It broke my heart.
Eddie Murphy is amazing for his dramatic range, singing, and the power of performance. Who knew? I also thought that Keith Robinson as C.C. was excellent. So was Jamie Foxx – he just wasn’t that likeable a character.
Dreamgirls is magic.
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