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December 13-19, 2006

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Svengali: Jamie Foxx manages a girl group to chart-topping success in 'Dreamgirls.'

Wigstock '66

The heartbreak, the gowns and the vocal runs of 'Dreamgirls' are preserved from the hit Broadway show

By Richard von Busack

ELEPHANTIASIS is supposed to be a tropical disease, but in the theaters it strikes in the winter months, right before Oscar time. Bill Condon, screenwriter for Chicago, directs and adapts Dreamgirls, the hit 1981 stage musical, for the age of bigger films.

Dreamgirls takes a fluid, small-scale piece and pumps it up to pachyderm size. Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen's musical debuted when disco was ravaging the world. Thus the show's much-reprised title theme sounds more like Giorgio Morodor than Holland Dozier Holland. One should mention the latter, since Dreamgirls is so firmly based on the Supremes that rumor says Diana Ross walked out during the first act when she went to see it.

Dreamgirls' almost subtext is about musicians being censored from commenting on '60s uprising (such as a shoved-in sequence of street rioting). In real life, the Supremes weren't completely escapist—is there a better song about teenage pregnancy than "Love Child"?

It is odd that Dreamgirls protests the watering down of an original sound for a white crossover audience, when almost all the songs in this film are matinee-lady friendly. The costuming and production design pleasingly evoke the tinsel and floodlights of old nightclubs and variety TV shows, but it's too bad that a genuine Supremes biopic remains out of reach of the cameras.

As for what's here in Dreamgirls, it's an extremely basic back-stage musical, wrought by people who probably could have acted out every Alice Faye/Don Ameche film ever made. Chunky Effie (Jennifer Hudson), willowy Deena (Beyoncé Knowles) and the half-bright Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) make up the Dreamettes, friends since childhood.

The story begins with the trio losing a fixed battle of the bands in Detroit. A lucky break gets them adopted as the touring band of R&B hitmaker James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy), legendary as a jive turkey who hits on his backup singers. A Berry Gordy figure named Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx) moves laterally from Cadillac sales to music producing. The Dreamettes—whom Curtis renames the Dreams (rhymes with "Supremes")—hit the charts. On the way up, the band loses two personnel who had been with it from the beginning: songwriter and Effie's brother, C.C. (Keith Robinson), and Jimmy's former manager, Marty (Danny Glover).

The slighter things prove to be more pleasurable than the by-the-book conflict and drama: I mean the slinky gowns and towering wigs, the travel montages and the way the girls are coached to turn on a dime onstage. One smiles to see an instant of a kid band pastiching the Jackson 5.

Murphy shows a not-bad voice doing some mildly peppery R&B (do listen to the sources of this kind of music, from Ike Turner to Little Richard, before claiming he's a knockout). Even Murphy is reduced to dropping trousers for comedy and, later, showing less appetite for a shot-load of heroin than any junkie ever seen.

As an actress, Beyoncé is really just a pair of lovely eyes. Wrapped in a Barbie's ransom of vintage clothes, she is just as uneasy onscreen as Ross was everywhere but in Lady Sings the Blues. Dreamgirls has one real breakthrough, though: a tribute to the satisfying myth that a somebody is just a nobody who got the right chance.

Jennifer Hudson is sparkly and barbed as Effie, whose heftiness gets her shoved off to one side, just as in real life Cindy Birdsong replaced the trouble-prone Florence Ballard in the Supremes. The droll, wickedly accomplished Hudson survives a badly underwritten part that tries to have it both ways: claiming that Effie is too ungrateful and troublesome to let the show go on and yet wanting us to feel she's been shoved aside and betrayed by Curtis' overwhelming urge to whiten up the Dreams' sound.

While it's her acting that really appeals, Hudson has a vast voice—a huge one, the kind that slaughters crowds—which is why so many thousands rallied for her to win her spot on American Idol. Hudson gives 150 percent when she sings, and she's a master of those powerfully ornate vocal runs that turn every simple song into a Moorish palace worth of arabesques.

The style is popular today, and I can't stand it. I'm getting melisma malaise. Isn't it true that in art, an essential part of talent is learning when to hold back? When Hudson attacks that gay-bar anthem "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," the title alone deserves a restraining order.

On a bare stage, alone, Hudson's Effie is crying out for love that no man, no family, no audience could ever supply. It's a show-stopper, of course, and at the preview screening there was spontaneous applause. And those who raved are at one with the long-dead crowds who applauded Sophie Tucker, Kate Smith and other foghorns of the past.

Movie Times Dreamgirls (PG-13; 131 min.), directed by Bill Condon, written by Condon and Tom Eyen, photographed by Tobias A. Schliessler and starring Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Anika Noni Rose and Jennifer Hudson, opens Dec. 15 in San Francisco and Dec. 25 everywhere.

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