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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  A Few Clouds
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A wail of a tale
Dreamgirls belts out the Motown story
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The movie examines the cost of greatness at the expense of greatness itself.
The movie examines the cost of greatness at the expense of greatness itself.

I was lucky enough to catch Dreamgirls during its original run on Broadway back in the early '80s, and I'd be lying if I said it wasn't one of the most exciting nights of my life. Director-choreographer Michael Bennett staged his musical tribute ' if 'tribute' is the right word ' to Diana Ross and the Supremes like it was a movie unspooling before our eyes, complete with wipes and dissolves. And I wonder if anyone has ever made better use of a stage. Everything was in constant motion ' the cast, the sets, the storylines. And the music never let up; while one number was ending over here, another was beginning over there. Then came Jennifer Holliday's legendary curtain-closer, 'And I Am Telling You,' a titanic refusal to go gentle into that good night. When Holliday was through, you could literally hear the audience gasp. We'd never been hit by a Mack truck before.

Twenty-five years later, Dreamgirls has finally completed its transformation to the big screen, and I wish I could say it's as powerful as ever. Bill Condon's movie version is in constant motion, and the music never lets up. But we almost expect that kind of relentless, frenetic pace in a movie musical these days. (I'm still getting seizures off Moulin Rouge.) And Condon has committed the ultimate act of stage-to-screen larceny: celebrity casting. Don't get me wrong, some of these people sing and dance their asses off. But none of them belongs in the same room with the legends they're invoking ' well, maybe Beyoncà Knowles as Diana Ross, a woman not exactly known for her singing voice. And the songs themselves, more Broadway than Motown, have about as much soul as...well, as the white acts that used to steal from black performers.

It's a great subject, Berry Gordy's creation of Motown Records, which found a way to sell black music to white people, supposedly by removing some of the color. And when Dreamgirls opens, it still hasn't occurred yet. We're backstage at Harlem's Apollo Theater, where there's so much talent hanging around you want to call the fire department, just in case. And Condon captures the excitement of a show that's one smash after another. Appearing for the first time are the Dreamettes ' Deena (Knowles), the pretty one; Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose), the other pretty one; and Effie (Jennifer Hudson), a full-figure gal with a mouth to match. At first, it's Effie who catches the eye of Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx), a manager with entrepreneurial dreams. He pairs the Dreamettes with James 'Thunder' Early (Eddie Murphy), an R&B star with more than a passing resemblance to James Brown.

Those of you who remember Murphy's hot-tub antics on 'Saturday Night Live' may be in for a surprise. The guy's got himself some moves, and he's sexy as hell in a series of outfits that belong in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. But the voice isn't quite there, and it throws the movie off, makes us wonder what all the fuss is about. Too soulful to cross over into the Ed Sullivan crowd, Murphy's Early is on the way down, and it's not long before the Dreamettes, now rechristened the Dreams, strike out on their own. But Effie's too soulful herself ' i.e., too black, too proud, not pretty enough. And Foxx's Taylor first pushes her out of his bed, then out of the group. Deena, with her supermodel's body and face, is the future of the company. Effie, like Florence Ballard before her, heads back to Detroit and gets in line at the welfare office.

But not before refusing to go, at the top of her lungs. Hudson, who some think was sent home too early on American Idol, certainly has the pipes. And she knows how to use them. But her speaking voice is soft, almost demure. And her shyness keeps her from surrendering to the role. Effie is a handful, which Hudson strives to convey, but it doesn't appear to come naturally to her. And so when she finally breaks into her big number, the number seems bigger than she is. It also appears to be dubbed, alas. If American Idol taught Hudson anything, surely it taught her how to sing live. Oh, and another problem: The movie hasn't done a very good job of communicating to us that Taylor and Effie are an item. We're told a few times, but we never see them alone together. How can she refuse to go if she's never been there in the first place?

Even before she's gone, Deena has moved to center-stage, literally and figuratively. And thanks in part to the very qualities the movie seems to be critiquing ' her iconic looks ' Knowles has no trouble holding the screen. She looks absolutely fabulous in a series of outfits that stretch from the early-'60s to the middle-'70s. And she has Ross' ability to seduce the camera without throwing herself at it. But she, too, is a little short on acting experience. (Steve Martin basically carried her through The Pink Panther, where she looked fabulous.) And the role, as conceived, doesn't give her much to work with. Diana Ross may have lacked some of the prerequisites for stardom, but ambition wasn't one of them, whereas Deena seems to glide to the top on a wing-tipped chariot. Knowles' own big number, added especially for the movie, isn't big enough. Miss Ross would have made sure it was.

The movie has important things to say about how Gordy treated his Motown 'family.' (Why is there no mention of the finishing school that made the acts presentable to white audiences?) And it has especially important things to say about how the Motown family treated its women. Deena gets ahead, in part, because she doesn't mouth off like Effie does. And the amount of control Taylor exerts over his employees, while the hits keep rolling off the Detroit assembly line, puts one in mind of a company-town factory owner. But Foxx never reaches the darkest areas that are right there in the script. It's as if he's too respectful of the Motown legacy, and why shouldn't he be? It's a great legacy. Just because the movie's songs don't have much soul doesn't mean Motown's didn't. If this was black music for white people, thank God I'm white.

Likewise, Motown was the first black-owned record company to make inroads into the mainstream, redirecting its flow for decades to come, and the movie doesn't seem to appreciate that enough. It examines the cost of greatness at the expense of the greatness itself. None of this would matter, of course, if Condon were delivering the goods, and he certainly tries. He wants to dazzle us, like Bennett did. And he wants to capture a particular moment in history ' hence, the clumsy nod to the Detroit riots. But the performers in Dreamgirls just aren't all that dreamy. Without Diana Ross and James Brown and ' the woman whom Jennifer Hudson and Jennifer Holliday must live in mortal fear of running into on a dark stage ' Aretha Franklin, it all feels a little too much like Motown night on American Idol.

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