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Wayback Wednesday: Dreamgirls (2006)

Listennnnnnn, to this soundtrack over and over again.

The thought had never occurred to me before, but the 2000s were really having a moment when it came to movie adaptations of Broadway musicals. The decade saw everything from Chicago (2002), to Rent (2005), to Hairspray (2007), to Mamma Mia! (2008) make its way to the big screen. All with varying degrees of critical and commercial success. I don’t care what anyone says, Mamma Mia! and the sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018) are two pieces of cinematic brilliance and I refuse to be told otherwise. One of the highlights of this trend though was absolutely Dreamgirls (2006). Not only did the movie end up grossing $155 million, and earn a buttload of Oscar nominations, but it also kickstarted the career of the phenomenal Jennifer Hudson! Not to mention, it gave us the timeless Beyoncé ballad, “Listen.” If you think I haven’t drunkenly performed that song at karaoke, you would be sorely mistaken.

Credit: / DreamWorks Pictures / Paramount Pictures

Based on the Broadway musical of the same name, Dreamgirls tells the story of Effie, Deena, and Lorrell, an R&B girl group known as The Dreams trying to make it big in the 1960s. When they meet Curtis Taylor Jr., a manipulative record executive, they’re able to cross over to the pop charts and their careers take off. But as the years go by and their fame intensifies, tension drives a wedge between The Dreams and tears friendships apart.

Part of why I think Dreamgirls was such a smash is because it had such a competent director at the helm. Bill Condon knows how to handle theatricality. While the story and characters in his movies may come off as simple or one-dimensional, you can always count on him to deliver a stunning production. Condon is a filmmaker that doesn’t shy away from extravagance, a trait that I appreciate in a director. From production design, to costumes, to make-up and hairstyling, I was in awe of the artistry put into this movie. In every aspect, there was top-notch quality. That’s what makes Condon a great choice to direct this movie. Broadway productions are known for their attention to detail and fabulosity, both of which Condon more than includes in this adaptation. I don’t know if the story is strong enough or given enough focus to make someone fall in love with this musical, but the production definitely is. It’s marvellous. Condon captures all the glitz of a stage show and flawlessly translates it to the big screen. Ugh, I was OBSESSED with every single one of these dazzling 60s fashions that the movie seemed to have an endless supply of. Obsessed! In every sense, Dreamgirls is a spectacle. It’s as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the ears.

On one hand, I can’t be mad at Dreamgirls for having such a simple story. Like most musicals, it gives you the bare bones of a plot. One that isn’t over complicated and can be quickly glossed over in favour of devoting more time to sparkle and fabulousness. As filled with allusions to real-life scandals as it is, the plot of Dreamgirls is not why anyone tunes in. You’re tuning in for how the movie fills the long gaps in between important plot points: the spectacular musical numbers. Once again, Condon understands how to translate the show from stage to screen. He knows that although he’s assembled an amazing cast (we’ll talk about it!), the real stars of this movie are the electrifying musical numbers. Dripping with glitz and glamour, each one is a show-stopper. It blows me away that each number is essentially just the principal cast performing on a stage, but oh my God, it’s sensational. I mean, no duh but the vocals in Dreamgirls are off the charts. Remember when movie musicals hired actual qualified singers? Having trained singers in the cast sells the authenticity of Dreamgirls and makes it an inherently more fun and enjoyable movie. Also, speaking of the music real quick, I’m sorry but does anyone actually prefer Effie’s version of “One Night Only?” The disco version is a BOP.

There isn’t a single weak link in this cast. From Beyoncé, to Jamie Foxx, to Anika Noni Rose, each role is cast with exceptional precision. Foxx is despicably crafty as the smarmy Curtis, and his uncontrollable urge to control Deena’s career for his own selfish purposes is excellent to watch. Foxx has a knack for playing smarmy characters who present one way but end up being something completely different behind closed doors. Of course, I couldn’t mention excellence without bringing up Eddie Murphy as James “Thunder” Early. What a great showcase for the multitalented Murphy. He’s been in so many bad movies lately that it’s hard to forget how electric and entertaining he is when his considerable talents are put to use in a good project. His performance is as full with charisma as it is with heart-wrenchingly solid acting and his singing is awesome as well. Murphy certainly earned his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had ended up winning.

Okay, so the Dreamgirls themselves…Rose unfortunately doesn’t get too much time in the spotlight as Lorrell, but when it does shine on her, Rose’s sweet and earnest performance will bring a smile to your face. In fact, as expected, Beyoncé gets a lot of that spotlight. As Deena, Beyoncé delivers what is without question the best acting performance she’s ever done. She gets to play the optimistic, naive, young Deena as well as the hardened, overworked superstar Deena, getting to explore the full range of her talent. Like Murphy, Dreamgirls was a great project for Beyoncé to show how much she was capable of and boy oh boy did she deliver. “Listen” still gives me chills. Also, the irony of Beyoncé playing Deena who is inspired by Diana Ross is not lost on me.

It is shocking that this was Jennifer Hudson’s first acting role. Before landing the role of Effie, she was most famous for appearing on American Idol (2002 – 2016, 2018 – present). Could you imagine? For reference, that’d be like someone nowadays being on The Voice (2011 – present) and then going on to deliver an Oscar-winning portrayal of Elphaba in “Wicked.” Wild. Though she had little experience, Hudson’s ridiculously incredible voice and magnetic acting ability assured audiences that she was more than capable of tackling this iconic role. Hudson’s portrayal of Effie will leave you in pieces. Fully committed to the role, you can see both her passion for show business, as well as how viciously it chews her up and spits her out. Hudson EARNED that Best Supporting Actress Oscar.  If she had gone straight to Broadway to play this role or had done a TV special, she easily would have just as much won a Tony or an Emmy. It’s a powerhouse performance that takes a once in a generation talent to play. I mean, her performance of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is everything. Stunning. Triumphant. Transcendent. It’s a commanding, powerhouse performance that will define Hudson for years to come.

I really like the the music and the performances in Dreamgirls, but for me, it’s not a super fun musical. Which is completely fine, not every musical needs to be, but I always prefer my musicals to be fun and silly. For that reason Dreamgirls is not my favourite adaptation of a Broadway musical, but I still remain in awe of the considerable amount of work and talent than went into this movie. If you’re at all a fan of musical theatre, you need to se Dreamgirls. Sigh….I was just thinking about Beyoncé again.

Have you seen Dreamgirls? What are your favourite movie musicals?

Let me know in the comments or on social media!

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