Dreamgirls (2006)

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, Beyoncé Knowles, Jennifer Hudson, Anika Noni Rose, Danny Glover, Keith Robinson

Directed by: Bill Condon

Rating: 1 2 3 and a half

Anika Noni rose, Beyonce and Jennifer Hudson are Dreamgirls

Bill Condon's Dreamgirls may be set in Detroit, but it rivals Chicago for sumptuous style and razzle dazzle glitz. Based on the early '80s Broadway hit musical, the film tells the story of the Dreams, a three-piece girl group based loosely on the Supremes, who struggle their way up from the Projects into the black R'n'B charts and up and onwards to musical world domination, turning lead vocalist and Diana Ross-a-like Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) into a superstar.

Like Chicago, which turned prison and capital punishment into Oscar winning light entertainment, Dreamgirls teases us with serious themes, before blowing them away in a blast of three-part harmony. At first, it looks as if racial politics are on the agenda, as, to a background of race riots and rallies, the groundbreaking work of black musicians is ruthlessly appropriated by the big money-making music corporations, dumbed down, sanitised and repackaged for a dweeby white audience with no sense of soul, but this plot strand is soon brushed aside with a joke about Martin Luther King cutting a record. The struggle between family life and career, with Deena's desire to have a child put constantly on hold in favour of stardom, is disposed with in one line of dialogue. And then there's the question of what music is really for - to express the truth and capture the zeitgeist, or simply, as Curtis would have it, to make money? At least, in a way, this question is answered by the film itself, the answer being that music is there to entertain.

Eddie Murphy as James Early, backed by the Dreams

And entertain Dreamgirls certainly does. From start to finish it's a gorgeously glamorous, beautifully styled, star-studded affair. Jamie Foxx plays Curtis Taylor Jr, the slippery snake oil salesman of a Svengali who transforms the Dreams into an overnight sensation but bends a lot of rules and breaks a lot of hearts along the way. Beyoncé is luminously beautiful as the surprisingly un-diva-like Deena Jones, although the jury's still out as to whether she can really act - she isn't really given all that much to do except look good, which she does to perfection - if that's what a diet of maple syrup does for you, I'll make mine a double.

Eddie Murphy (for the first time in ages appearing in a film with someone else other than himself in a fat suit) is Johnny 'Thunder' Early, the extrovert James Brown-esque showman whose descent from soul superstar to embarrassing old hasbeen is directly proportional to the girls' rise to fame. In true A Star Is Born stylee, as they ride the top of the charts, he sinks into a somewhat under realised mire of drug abuse, thus saving the film from being all rise and no fall, and thereby violating the sacred 'three stages of Elvis' rules of all good biopics.

Beyonce - luminously beautiful as Deena Jones in Dreamgirls

But if a star is really born in Dreamgirls, then it has to be American Idol runner up Jennifer Hudson. She plays Effie White, the group's original lead vocalist who, with a voice like Aretha Franklin and a substantial figure to match, is sidelined in favour of the svelte Deena. Only she has the power to stop the cinematic show, pouring heart and soul into gutsy, virtuoso ballads that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up on end.

That said, one of the downsides of this musical is that some of the songs are a bit samey and bland - in fact, as the film clocked up two hours without showing any signs of stopping, an audible groan could be heard around the cinema as Effie looked set to launch into another soul epic. In addition, the film doesn't seem to know what kind of musical it wants to be, a Cabaret, with all musical interludes performed as part of a show within a show, or a West Side Story, where everyone breaks into song at the drop of a hat. As the West Side Story moments are fairly infrequent, when they do occur, they instantly jar, and the fact that the lyrics are definitely more Richard Stilgoe than Jim Steinman really doesn't help.

Still, even if you're not so into the tunes, you can't fault Dreamgirls on visual style - it looks absolutely amazing, and will have you itching to slap on some glittery eyeshadow and a hug bouffant wig and strut your funky stuff. Sizzling, seductive and, well, yes, a bit superficial, this R'n'B musical has style and sass, but is kinda short on soul.

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