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DREAMGIRLS (article first published : 2007-02-18)

The winner of a number of Golden Globe Awards and frontrunner at the February 25 Oscars bash, with eight nominations - although, curiously, not for Best Picture - Dreamgirls is the hot film of the moment.

It's a glossy big-screen treatment of the 1981 Broadway musical which, inspired by the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes, collected eight Tony Awards and spawned the hit power-ballad And I Am Telling You (I'm Not Going) and the disco anthem One Night Only.

Scriptwriter and director Bill Condon, who wrote the award-winning Chicago, has delivered a handsome, gorgeously costumed, superbly shot, stylish and well-acted movie which fans of the show, and musicals in general, are sure to relish.

Others, however, might wish to be warned that Dreamgirls is the kind of musical where people break into song at a moment's notice, lyrics substituting for dialogue. So be prepared for plenty of that. And note that if gutsy, sock-it-to-'em songs, with scores of (very) shrill notes, are likely to set you wincing and throwing cupped hands over your ears, steer clear. Loads of that, too.

Originally planned, then scrapped, as a film in the late 80s, when diva Whitney Houston was tagged as the lead, but greedily wanted script changes to enable her to sing songs associated with other characters, Dreamgirls was also poised to star Lauren Hill when interest in a film version was revived in the 90s.

But it's gorgeous Beyonce Knowles who now finally hits the screen in the principal role of Deena Jones. She's the prettiest member of The Dreams, an all-girl singing trio in the 60s, which also features the meek and naive Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) and powerful-voiced lead singer Effie White (Jennifer Hudson).

They perform original songs composed by Effie's brother, CC (Keith Robinson, in a role for which recording star Usher had been considered). The group gets a break when it's signed up to do back-up for fading, James Brown-like star James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy with a hairdo from hell).

Then, under the management of the ambitious Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx), who starts an affair with Effie, the trio blossoms. But success comes only after Curtis moves Deena on to lead vocals, which results in bad vibes that eventually lead to a break up between Curtis and Effie - and her leaving the group to fall on hard times as The Dreams start to hit it big.

Touching on darker issues - racism and bribery among them - as it spreads its glitz, glamour and glitter, Dreamgirls offers a multi-layered tale and well-defined characters. It impresses with a choice cast of charmers and strong production values, even if it lacks the sort of razzle dazzle and stylistic flourishes which made Chicago such a standout.

It's of particular note for the Oscar-nominated Hudson, the former American Idol finalist who steals all the vocal thunder and reportedly gained 10kg for the role. She displays a fine acting talent that makes the sassy and increasingly sad Effie a character for whom we want to root, presenting her as a tough, no-nonsense talent rather than just a stubborn troublemaker.

Murphy is also great, delivering a deftly nuanced performance, although I'm not convinced he's deserved of his Oscar nomination.

It's worth noting that Loretta Devine, who plays a jazz singer in the movie, created the role of Lorrell Robinson in the original Broadway production. And actor Hinton Battle, who plays Curtis's aide Wayne, was a replacement for James "Thunder" Early in the first stage production. Rating 8/10 Billy Suter




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