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Dreamgirls
2-Disc Showstopper Edition (Blu-Ray)

review by Zach B.

 

 

Running Time: 130 Minutes

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

Based On The Original Broadway Production Book and Lyrics By: Tom Eyen
Music By: Henry Krieger

Written For The Screen and Directed By: Bill Condon

 

Studio: Paramount

Retail Price: $39.99

Features:
Disc 1: Extended and Alternate Scenes, "Listen" Music Video, Soundtrack Promo
Disc 2: "Building The Dream" Documentary, Featurettes, Auditions, Screen Tests, Previsualization Sequences, Image Gallery

Specs: 2.35:1 Widecreen (1080p High Definition), English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, English Subtitles, French Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, Scene Selection (25 Scenes)

Released: May 1st, 2007

Based on the hit Broadway show, "Dreamgirls" chronicles the rise and personal tribulations of the musical group The Dreams, who hit their pinnacle with the boom of Motown only to have their personal lives unravel. But it's really the story of one key member - Effie (Jennifer Hudson) - who is certainly the soul of the group, only to be ousted and scored by manager (and former lover) Curtis (Jamie Foxx), who takes up with member Deena (Beyoncé Knowles) and makes her the face of the group. As Effie comes to terms with who she is, makes peace with her past and forges her own destiny, Deena and Curtis' relationship hits rocky passages and Curtis' music empire slowly crumbles away. And there's also the suave James Thunder Early (Eddie Murphy), who's career as pop phenom to burnt-out star becomes a metaphor for the other characters and other story at large.

That's "Dreamgirls" in a nut shell. The thick narrative does touch on some dark issues, but overall remains a pretty light and bouncy affair. I guess to an extent "Dreamgirls" is a musical soap opera. It also tells the story of Motown, albeit Roman a clef style. If you're familiar with pop music history, then you'll recognize the assorted backdrops and parallels: music crossing over to white audiences, Payola scandals, political events (the Detroit riots, Vietnam) and more. The only thing that's missing is an actor slipping up and calling Jamie Foxx's character "Berry."

So it's with great disappointment that I say that while "Dreamgirls" is a good time, I don't think it is as strong as it could have been. I don't think I'm the only one who felt that way - after some big numbers, the film dwindled down and struggled to cross 100 million at the domestic numbers. And then there was the shocking Oscar snub for Best Picture. I don't know if "Dreamgirls" deserved the gold if it did score the nod, but I think it was a better picture than some of the other nominees.

My problem with the movie is that it doesn't seem as dramatic as it could have been, and feels like it's missing something. The movie has momentum, but not the razzle-dazzle and forceful kind. It's solid pop filmmaking and goes down easy, but when it comes to the story, there's nothing that amazes or astonishes. Heartstrings are tugged, but not pulled upon. The movie does work at a human and emotional level, and that's great, but the film's second half tears down a lot of what's been built up. The characters are often at a distance in the second half of the film, tensions shift and this all lacks energy. The conflicts between the characters are either repetitive or feel too broad, and not intimate enough. The movie is not inert, and does have punch - but it doesn't have those two elements all the time.

This may not all be of writer-director Bill Condon's fault, but I think some of the responsibility rests with him. A lot of moments, for the most part, come small and easily. And perhaps that is where the dramatic flair isn't upped enough. The film's ending is really tidy, which is to be expected (this was a Broadway show originally, after all). Epiphanies instantly come for the characters, and there really is no struggle. It is believable, and it warms the heart a bit in that what goes around comes around, but it's not that interesting. The movie does give its characters dimensions, but when there is a lot going on and you only have so much time, things end up spreading themselves pretty thin. In short, the movie's springboard is also its flaw: how things are developed. There is development, but at times just not enough. It's an uneven affair. I don't know how the original show was structured, but the movie's timeframe stretches out for approximately 20 years. This means a lot gets compacted, and my issues with the movie are things you just need to buy into.

What also feels off at times is Bill Condon's direction. The movie may be uneven, but the fact that it's so easy to get sucked into the story and how he ultimately divides the time speaks well of Condon's pacing and vision. And while there may be a lot happening in two hours, things don't become overcooked - Condon restrains himself, where I'm sure it may have been easy to go overboard. But there are times - particularly during the musical numbers - where Condon's direction and editing doesn't feel so cohesive. Condon doesn't quite go for epic shots and staging as he does for ambitious. Sometimes he does succeed: I liked the shots where Condon has performers rehearsing, and then zips around and all of a sudden they are performing to crowds. And yes, during the songs and the dancing you can see the dance moves and he focuses on the characters who are center stage. And while I wouldn't call the editing choppy or messy, this is where the movie does border on overkill. The "Family" musical number is a good example. The editing is a bit frantic, and the shooting doesn't always make sense - particularly the multiple pans around the characters and the various angles. It's distracting - and paying more attention to the presentation than what's on screen is never a good sign. And yet when it comes to the number that brings down the house right after, the pace is rightfully slowed down yet visually is a bit static. Where's Rob Marshall when you need him?

Speaking of the musical numbers, the movie doesn't always feel like a musical. When I think of musicals, I think of smooth transitions where the characters randomly break out into song and dance. A majority of the musical sequences take place on stage, when the characters are performing. And sometimes, the music overlaps with montages of what's occurring characterwise and plotwise. But really, there are only about three or four instances when the characters sing to each other. In those times it either works decently, or feels out of place. It's nothing bad, but I felt there could have been a bit more showstopping dazzle then.

The story and musical numbers aside, when it comes to some dazzling visuals and lots of spectacle, "Dreamgirls" doesn't disappoint. When it comes to production values, "Dreamgirls" really knows how to impress: the 60s and 70s are re-created with pinpoint accuracy here, right down to the clothing and hairstyles, not to mention the architecture and LP covers. Topped with terrific costumes, nice choreography, some catchy songs (not all of which are memorable, but wasn't pop music just as vapid then as it is now?), and some great sets, the movie really transports you to the Motown era.

While some critics took issue to certain casting choices, I think the film has a flawless ensemble. Beyoncé was criticized a bit for her performance as Deena Jones, in that the singer isn't as much of a force, that's the point: Deena figures prominently into some plot points, but she's not what the story is about. I think Beyoncé is a good actress, but the script doesn't have her do much except act pretty and be emotional here and there.

Also taken to task was Jamie Foxx, who I thought nailed it as Curtis. Foxx showcases a smoothness that he's been accustomed to on screen in recent roles, but also plays up the more sleazeball side. Yet Foxx doesn't overreach - he's a bit soft, and not nasty or overdramatic. Instead of chewing scenery, Foxx's demeanor is more of intrigue. Foxx should have been recognized more for his performance.

As you probably know by now, it is the supporting players that make the movie. While I'd argue that Jennifer Hudson's Effie has a role that is beyond supporting, the truth is that Hudson is the real deal. While it can be argued that Hudson may have really won her Oscar statuette for Best Singing, I think Hudson is a more than competent actress and this is a striking, starmaking debut. You can list off all the clichéd phrases, but she is the real deal. Hudson definitely has a screen presence, and plays well off against the seasoned pros. And yep, she has major singing pipes. When Hudson opens her mouth, she's a hurricane that sucks in all this energy an becomes a force you could not ignore from hundreds of miles away. And when the signature number comes on - "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" - you want to cheer when it ends (actually, people did when I saw this movie in the theater). Here's hoping Hudson's hype doesn't do her in, and has a steady acting career.

And of course, there's the unbelievable Eddie Murphy. As the tormented James Thunder Early (a mix of such musical legends as James Brown and Little Richard), Murphy's role fits him like a glove, and ranks as one of his absolute best - if not best - performance. After years of sleepwalking through family movies and doing the same routine, Murphy busts out some real acting chops and looks excited that he is acting. Murphy may have been mocked in the 1980s for his foray into pop music, but dammit, the man can sing. Murphy's role also calls for some hustling and charm, but as his character's arc goes forward, Murphy is able to reflect the lows of Early perfectly - the weariness, the dreams dying and nosediving, and all the disappointments. While maybe it would have diluted things to have Murphy in the movie, I wish he did get some more screen time. As much as I liked Alan Arkin in "Little Miss Sunshine," and as much as a veteran Arkin is, I think many of you can agree with me in that Murphy was robbed of an Oscar. I sincerely hope Eddie Murphy dons another dramatic role in the near future.

The other supporting players are nice, too. Anika Noni Rose is quite strong as the other main Dreamette, and Danny Golver turns in another solid turn as a music manager. Keith Robinson gets some good dramatic punches as Effie's brother, and there are some cameos from the likes of Jaleel "Urkel" White and John Lithgow as a film director.

As far as hyped cinematic experiences, "Dreamgirls" is not remarkably tight or deep, but does that really matter? Aren't most musicals big on the fluff, anyway? For the most part, "Dreamgirls" delivers the goods and has all the makings of a crossover hit to appeal to pretty much every demographic out there. The film is a pretty lavish spectacle that's hard not to become engrossed by. It's enjoyable escapist entertainment, and with enough subtilties to peak through in the background to satisfy those looking for a bit more. Five years ago, "Chicago" was supposedly the beginning of movie musical comebacks, and it still seems as if that was also its peak. "Dreamgirls" doesn't reach the grand heights it may appear too, but at least it is a comeback of sorts - especially after last year's disappointing one-two punch of "Rent" and "The Producers."

Ah, the brilliance of high definition. Presented in 2.35:1 widescreen at 1080p, "Dreamgirls" looks phenomenal. I wasn't huge on the standard DVD transfer, but this transfer really had me a believer in high definition. Most of the problems I had with the regular DVD were gone here: the image seemed even more film-like, as it was incredibly sharp and barely soft. Contrast was much more even, resulting in less noise and halos. Colors are much more vivid here too, detail is flawless, fleshtones are perfect and black levels are really strong. Since I do not own an HD DVD player, I can't compare this Blu-Ray edition to that format, but I imagine them looking quite similar. If you have an HDTV and the proper equipment, I highly recommend springing for high definition for such an illustrious and often breathtaking transfer.

 

Since this is a musical, the audio definitely shines in "Dreamgirls." The English 5.1 Dolby Digital track is quite enveloping, as the songs come alive with full dynamic range and sounds discrete - all with a few effects no less, be it where the orchestration kicks in or crowds cheering during the concert performances. You definitely feel like you're up front watching these performances, which is a good thing. Other than that, the subwoofer has some decent use, the dialogue is clean and easy to hear, and the other sound effects - such as cars swerving and doors opening - don't sound limited. Pretty robust, all around.

Unfortunately, like the standard DVD counterpart, Dolby Digital is your only choice here. This is pretty disappointing - I was hoping for a more powerful audio track or uncompressed one, a la some other recent Blu-Ray release, given that this is high definition after all. An English Dolby Surround track is also included, plus English closed captions, and subtitles in English and French.

 

The first disc is definitely music-oriented when it comes to extras. The major thing here are the Extended and Alternate Scenes, twelve in all. They're all fully put-together, and in glorious high definition and Dolby Digital 5.1 to boot. You can view them separately, or play them all. In all, they run a solid 36 minutes. Your enjoyment of these will probably depend on how much you liked the songs, but if you ask me, they're all worth a watch if you enjoyed the film - particularly what was trimmed, what was changed, what was intercut and how the songs were originally visualized for the movie.

There's also the "Listen" Music Video by Beyoncé Knowles, in two-channel sound and standard definition. There's also a preview for the film's soundtrack.

The second disc has the bulk of the extras. The major thing here is the Building The Dream documentary (in high definition), divided into nine parts: "On Broadway," "The Dream Is Alive," "I'm Lookin' For Something," "Feel So Real," "You Better Move, Move...", "The Sound Of Tomorrow," "Gonna Take A Mean Ride: A Side," "Gonna Take A Mean Ride: B Side" and "One Night Only." Impressively, this baby runs almost two hours (!) and is a definite must see. Epic in scope, this documentary tells the origins of the original Broadway show, tracks the production of the movie and leads right up to the film's world premiere in New York. Everything you wanted to know about the show and film is here, as the documentary discusses the original legacy of the Broadway production, the story's Motown roots, the music, the casting, the intense shoot, the choreography and much, much more. There is a load of on-the-set and production footage here, and the film's large cast (major and supporting), as well as the filmmakers (such as Bill Condon and cinematographer Tobias Schlessler) and musicians give their thoughts on it all. If you couldn't tell from on screen, this mighty piece shows how much effort and energy it took to mount the movie - and clearly it was a lot of hard work (but of course, everyone seemed to have a lot of fun). This is a fascinating, insightful and comprehensive documentary, and I cannot rave about it enough. It's one of the best movie documentaries I've had the pleasure of viewing on DVD.

The disc features a few other featurettes - some additional production stuff that I suppose couldn't fit in the main documentary (also all in high definition, woohoo). First up is Dream Logic: Film Editing, featuring Bill Condon's long time film editor, Virginia Katz. Katz discusses her passion for editing a musical, and Condon speaks of his collaboration with her. Also featured is first assistant editor Ian Slater, who speaks of what it takes to edit a musical, complete with examples. I don't know how they do it, but it seems like an impossible task. The editors had over a million feet of film to work with, and one such number - "Steppin' To The Bad Side" - had 5 hours of footage filmed, and the editors had to whittle it down to 2 and a half minutes (not to mention it synching it to pre-recorded music). This is totally worth 4 minutes of your time.

Dressing The Dreams: Costume Design, is eight minutes on the movie's glorious costumes. Complete with film footage and production sketches, designer Sharen Davis discusses her process in making costumes, and how she tries to make clothes that fit the personas of the characters. It's interesting to hear Davis' thoughts on the costumes, particularly how the costumes evolve stylistically through the characters' growth and the decades the film takes place in. Worth a watch.

Center Stage: Theatrical Lighting, lasts about 9 minutes and focuses on the film's lighting designers - Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. The duo discuss their working process, and how their work entails as if they are lighting a play for the scenes that use stages. There's a lot of split-screen examples of the final footage and on-the-set footage, all while the two discuss specific examples and how it all made an impact in setting some numbers. It is also worth your time to view, and nice to hear such technical details - particularly since these are often people you barely hear from in DVD extra features.

Auditions and Screen Tests is divided into three parts: a screen test featuring Beyoncé Knowles, an audition for Anika Noni Rose and a choreography audition for Fatima Robinson, featuring the song "Steppin' To The Bad Side." All three are interesting looks at the start of the production process. Previsualization Sequences feature seven songs from the movie, but instead of film footage, audition and storyboard footage is used to help set the tone and guide what the filmmakers are aiming for. An angle feature would have been helpful to compare directly to the final film. Finally, there are four parts to the Image Gallery: "Storyboards," "Costume Designs," "Production Designs" and "Art Department Archive." There are dozens and dozens of stills here, which could make you go nuts (but in a good way). It's pretty astounding just how much work went into creating the movie's visual tone and details. It's nice to individually admire such pieces.

 

"Dreamgirls" isn't a perfect movie musical, but it's damn entertaining, and I think superior to a few of the films that earned the coveted Best Picture nomination at the 2007 Academy Awards. Despite the movie not reaching up to all levels of its hype, it is worth checking out - and this is a pretty strong DVD package for you high definition fans. The transfer is stunning (and really blows the disappointing DVD counterpart out of the water), the audio is on par with what you'd expect and there are plenty of supplements to please fans of the movie. Whether you loved it in theaters or missed it, "Dreamgirls" is a fine and entertaining spectacle that's worth seeing. If you have high definition (be it Blu-Ray or HD DVD), be sure to enjoy this visually stunning movie in a more superior way.