Adapting the Broadway musical that was first staged in 1981, director Bill Condon puts together a movie that moves at whirlwind pace in its first hour and then levels out. I really wanted to love Dreamgirls. Maybe that was the problem: too high of expectations. It had a lot of the things I love about musicals: great songs, great singers, great performers, great performances, great choreography, and great star power to drive the thing home.

A thinly veiled version of the rise of the Supremes and Berry Gordy’s Motown, the movie mimics the music … my dad … grew up with. So part of the fun of the movie was guessing who was based on whom. The movie begins at an amateur night at a Detroit theater, with the Dreamettes being cheated out of a win. Fortunately, Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) a Detroit car salesman turned would-be record producer, manages to wrangle them as backup singers for James ”Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy), a sort of James Brown via Marvin Gaye.

The movie is backlit with the politics of race. The overall all arc of the movie almost follows the history of pop music, with the idealism of Black musicians wanting to make and control our own music. From Blues, jazz, Gospel, R&B;, to Soul, we see the music co-opted by white artists and businessmen. This sets the backdrop for much of what drives the movie. Due to the music industry’s racism, Curtis pays off radio stations, a necessary evil for the day. He replaces the dark-skinned, thick lead singer, Effie White (Jennifer Hudson – channeling the voice of a young Aretha Franklin), with the light-skinned, twig-physiqued backup singer Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles). It’s not just a cosmetic change, as Curtis tells Effie, her voice is too ”special” (read: “too black”). However, by strange coincidence, the movie that began with such fury and passion stultified the more the career arc of the group moves to cross over appeal.

“You want all the privileges and none of the responsibilities.” –Marty Madison (Danny Glover)

Dreamgirls has the opposite problem of Idlewild: it uses the music to cover the lack of drama. Ostensibly the movie wants to be about the power and responsibility of family; what happens when you sacrifice for your dream and your dream is stolen. However, just like the protagonist of the movie Requiem for a Dream is actually addiction, the hero of Dreamgirls is “the dream.”

The movie examines the price of “making it,” never quite answering the question of whether any of them truly “makes it,” and the sacrifices required to make the dream a reality. Unfortunately, with the dream being the protagonist, mostly what we are left with are cardboard characters. Don’t get me wrong, Jennifer Hudson easily walks away with the movie, as Effie is the pathos storm of the century. Her showstopper number, ”And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” (one of those American Idol “big” songs that when done right is chilling, but when the voice isn’t up to the task is calamitous) is a staggering piece of musical acting. It was a moving lament that had our audience bursting out into applause (which didn’t happen when Beyonce performed her own show stopper number, “Listen”). In fact, Beyonce has little to nothing to do other than stand around and be manipulated.

“All my life I’ve been a fool/Who said I could do it all alone
How many good friends have I already lost?/How many dark nights have I known?
Walking down that wrong road, there was nothing I could find
All those years of darkness-can make a person blind/But now I can see.”

The group started off with a sincere desire: to use the gifts they were blessed with and be who they were meant to be. Somehow that simple, good dream was corrupted. At some point, something crept into the vision, unnoticed at first. Maybe pride, maybe greed, but something caused the dream to go awry. Once set on this different path, it eventually lead to loneliness, despair, fear. Something has to break this cycle.

Chasing after the trappings of success is a hollow endeavor. Instead, we are called to be missional, to seek to have a life as a community sent by God into its place in the world. We are to live an alternative vision of success as defined by our society’s culture, socio-political, and economic structures. And, if nothing else, appreciate the power of community and family, because life boils down to relationships.

Because no character’s story is particularly followed, we’re left with half-concerns. Effie’s fall into despair doesn’t really grab us (we’re told she blew through half a million dollars in booze in two years, but barely see a couple of drinks). Dreamgirls needed to be bigger somehow, do more with its inspiration/source material and be more melodramatic. The movie constantly undersells many of the key emotional moments (from Deena and Effie reconciling, to Curtis figuring out who the father of Effie’s daughter is). They undercut any potential high drama by turning Deena into a saint, not responsible for any of the tragedy that befalls Effie. Even Jamie Foxx seemed to have turned his charisma down to “simmer” and has a constant look of vague discomfort. Which is similar to how I felt about the movie. I really wanted to like it, and was expecting Oscar worthy turns from most of the cast. Instead, I left liking the movie, but was vaguely disappointed.

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