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"I'm not building this group to have you tear it apart."
DVD ReviewThe DVD Review and the Extras Review are by David Krauss
Bill Condon didn't direct Chicago, but as the film's Oscar-nominated writer, he surely took copious notes from the man who did, Rob Marshall. So when it came time to tackle Dreamgirls, the equally flashy Henry Krieger-Tom Eyen Broadway smash, Condon eagerly grabbed the reins, and with style and confidence steered the sleek theatrical thoroughbred into the cinematic realm. Though Marshall's influence pervades the film, Dreamgirls is ultimately Condon's baby, and his keen vision helps make it the best Hollywood musical to sashay across the screen since Chicago brought the genre back from the dead.
Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, and Eddie Murphy headline this glitzy showbiz saga, but it's former American Idol castoff Jennifer Hudson who grabs our attention and proves she's a wannabe no more. Anyone who watched Fox's top-rated talent contest three years ago knew Hudson had the pipes to belt out the show's larynx-shredding anthem of heartache, And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going. But could the plus-size diva muster the requisite raw emotion to put the song over and slay the audience? The Academy voted, and the answer was a resounding yes. Even if Hudson never uttered a single line of dialogue, she deserved her Oscar for embodying the agony of rejection and betrayal while navigating a supremely challenging vocal line. Like a heavyweight prizefighter unloading a barrage of body blows, Hudson pummels us with her pain, and it's impossible not to be moved by her intensity and instrument. You're gonna love me indeed.
A heady mixture of glamour and grit, Dreamgirls wraps several relevant themes around a soapy plot loosely based on the rise of both Diana Ross & The Supremes and Berry Gordy, Jr.'s Motown Records. Knowles, Hudson, and Anika Noni Rose portray Deena, Effie, and Lorrell, a trio of naïve female soul singers who can't catch a break in early-1960s Detroit. Yet after making a minor splash at a local talent competition, The Dreamettes catch the eye of Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Foxx), a smooth-talking car salesman who brokers a deal for them to sing backup for the flamboyant James "Thunder" Early (Murphy). The prospect of touring with a seasoned pro thrills Deena and Lorrell, but lead singer Effie, a big girl with an even bigger voice, initially scoffs at relinquishing the spotlight. Curtis' attention, however, changes her mind, and the two soon begin a rocky romance that's later complicated by his growing attraction to Deena. Meanwhile, the impressionable Lorrell enters into a misguided affair with the womanizing (and married) Early.
As the act gains steam, Curtis becomes obsessed with developing a "new sound" that would enable R&B artists to conquer the pop charts, blanket the airwaves, and earn the same hefty revenue as whites. Tenuous race relations and rising civil unrest make the task more difficult, but Curtis is confident The Dreams (as they are now called) could break the color barrier and successfully trailblaze. To do so, however, he believes the group needs a softer, silkier vibe, and that means promoting Deena to lead singer and relegating an outraged Effie to backup. The formula clicks, but when Deena becomes the breakout star, jealousy, resentment, greed, and ambition threaten to shatter The Dreams. Success also fuels Curtis' corrupt and controlling nature, and over time, the homogenized sound he worked so hard to create becomes an inescapable trap for Deena and Early—one that prevents them from fully embracing their music and heritage.
The engrossing story sustains interest, thanks to Condon's brisk pacing, a variety of snappy—if similar-sounding—tunes, and fine performances. Though Hudson rightfully received the bulk of the Dreamgirls buzz, and consistently steals attention, she's hardly the whole show. Knowles uses her statuesque beauty and honey-toned voice to evoke Diana Ross without imitating her, while Foxx adopts a seductively shrewd and ruthless air as her grasping, ambitious Svengali. Murphy, however, is the real surprise, etching a subtle yet highly charged portrait of a frustrated performer who trades artistic freedom for crossover hits, and can never find solid footing thereafter. Rarely has the comedian taken on such a full-bodied role, and he makes the most of it. The cast also breathes new life into Krieger's soulful score, which contains four new songs (the best of which is the affecting power ballad, Listen, exquisitely sung by Knowles) that lend the musical a welcome contemporary edge.
Sumptuous sets and costumes also distinguish the production, but Dreamgirls is much more than eye and ear candy. In the context of its showbiz milieu, it astutely explores the evolution of black culture and society during a turbulent era. The film touches on the Civil Rights Movement, but focuses more intently on personal rights—namely, the emancipation of black women, who, in the early 1970s, began emerging from the domineering shadow of their men to claim their own identity. At first, Deena, Effie, and Lorrell believe the affection they receive from Curtis and Early validates them, and are all too willing to be shaped and packaged as a commodity. But as the trio matures, they realize equality, integrity, and independence hold the key to self-respect, and all must make difficult choices if they wish to stand on their own.
One of the best things about Dreamgirls is that it doesn't shy away from musical conventions. While most of the numbers transpire in a theatrical setting, Condon seems refreshingly unconcerned with our suspension of disbelief, and in pivotal scenes bravely allows the characters to sing—instead of speak—their dialogue, just as they did in the Broadway original. Audiences possess far more sophistication than many arrogant filmmakers believe, and Condon's confidence in our ability to fully embrace the musical genre deserves commendation.
Though Dreamgirls is an inherently cinematic piece of theater, its celluloid-friendly structure doesn't guarantee a successful film adaptation. Condon, however, puts his heart and soul into the project, and crafts a buoyantly entertaining, often exhilarating picture that maintains the energy and panache of the Broadway original. It may have taken 25 years, but this Dreamgirls was worth the wait.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: There's quite a lot to like in the HD version of this release. There's very good texture on costumes, and especially in the hairdos. The grain structure is natural and attractive. The stage sequences are bright and colorful, in contrast to the crisply devastating shots of a burned-out post-riot Detroit. On closeups there's excellent fine skin detail, though it's a bit lacking in medium shots. Shadow detail is surprising limited, with backgrounds often shrouded in complete blackness. The one example of compression ringing I noted was a sequence when Lorrell is seen in closeup in front of a vivid magenta backdrop; serious ringing was visible at that point. Posterization was quite limited however and on the whole the disc is very attractive. The HD extras look even better.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: There's nothing to complain about on the audio, although DreamWorks missed a bet by not including a lossless TrueHD track. Nevertheless, the DD+ 5.1 tracks have enormous presence, with a clean and expansive sound. Hudson's scorching vocals in particular come across wonderfully. There's very nice bass extension, and surrounds are reasonably active, with plenty of reverb. The brushes have a buttery and lifelike softness that is delighful. Lip synching on songs is marginal at times, but this is obviously a production problem rather than a transfer issue since the dialogue is spot on throughout.
Audio Transfer Grade: A
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
The standard DVD release:
This two-disc "Showstopper" edition is chock-full of extras, but strangely lacks an audio commentary. Such a beloved musical (with such a rich history) cries out for the type of in-depth examination a running commentary provides, and it's a shame writer-director Condon, composer Krieger, or producer Laurence Mark didn't get the opportunity to share their views in such a forum. Yet despite this glaring omission, there are plenty of fine supplements to occupy and absorb Dreamgirls junkies.
The main attraction on Disc 1 is a 36-minute collection of 12 extended and/or alternate musical numbers, many of which are presented without the narrative cut-ins seen in the finished film. Watching Hudson belt out the rousing I Am Changing from beginning to end inspires an even deeper appreciation of both her musical and dramatic ability, while the full-length Dreams version of One Night Only brilliantly celebrates the hedonistic disco culture of Studio 54, complete with vamping drag queens, bare-chested bartenders, and hordes of leather-clad partiers. The uncut Fake Your Way to the Top and Steppin' to the Bad Side add compelling bits of narrative and character development, and it's a treat to see the moving Hudson-Keith Robinson duet, Effie, Sing My Song, even if it makes one rue its deletion.
Next, the beautiful Beyoncé takes center stage for the classy Listen music video (03m:48s). The pop diva unleashes even more power and passion in this slightly supped up version of the emotional ballad, which is peppered with film clips. A minute-long promo for the Dreamgirls soundtrack, and trailers for Eddie Murphy's Shrek The Third and Norbit wrap up the Disc 1 extras.
Disc 2 opens with Building the Dream, one of the most absorbing, comprehensive, and stylishly produced making-of documentaries I've seen. Broken into nine sections that can be viewed individually or continuously, the 115-minute film chronicles the journey of Dreamgirls from stage to screen through extensive behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the cast and crew. Sequences on the original Broadway production, the quarter-century struggle to get Dreamgirls before the cameras, casting, the intense pre-production period, choreography, the new songs written expressly for the movie, and the paparazzi-packed premiere highlight this feature-length all-access pass. The documentary devotes a full hour to the actual shooting of the picture, and watching Hudson film And I Am Telling You... produces an emotional response that rivals the wrenching finished product. Condon's articulate comments inform and enlighten, but everyone involved contributes fascinating tidbits. Hudson recalls her dismissal from American Idol (and the prophetic statement she made at the time), and echoes Knowles' perception of the arduous audition process, while others share anecdotes, mishaps, and technical tricks. Footage of pre-recording sessions, screen tests, dance rehearsals, and run-throughs makes us feel like we're really on the set, and bring this musical blockbuster down to earth.
Dream Logic: Film Editing examines the "meticulous process" of weeding through more than a million (that's right, a million!) feet of celluloid to select the best shots for the movie. The four-minute featurette also addresses why 15 minutes of music was deleted from Dreamgirls following the first preview. Sharen Davis discusses the real-life legends who influenced her fashion choices for various characters in the eight-minute Dressing the Dreams: Costume Design, while Center Stage: Technical Lighting, which runs nine minutes, explains how light shades our emotions, and how designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer achieved an authentic period look.
Even casual fans will enjoy the Auditions and Screen Tests section, which includes Knowles singing Dreamgirls in full costume, hair, and makeup; Anika Noni Rose belting out the defiant Ain't No Party (which was cut from the film prior to production); and choreographer Fatima Robinson's dance troupe pitching Steppin' to the Bad Side. Unfortunately, Hudson's tests are not included here, although snippets of them can be seen in the Building the Dream documentary.
Finally, 35 minutes of Previsualization Sequences combine storyboards, rehearsal footage, and voiceover dialogue to show how Condon constructed seven key segments, and an extensive image gallery includes hundreds of storyboard drawings, costume and set sketches, and—most interesting of all—mock album covers, posters, and logos for James "Thunder" Early, Effie White, Deena Jones, and The Dreams.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsThe engaging instant classic makes a splash on HD DVD, with a lovely video and audio transfer and a ton of extras, mostly in HD.
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