I don't really know Dreamgirls the way I know, say, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or Anything Goes or Brigadoon. I could hum you "One Night Only" -- or, at the least, its unrelenting chorus -- but that was about it. I was surprised, then, not only by the verve and dazzle Bill Condon brought to his big-screen version of the 1981 Broadway musical, but also by the strength in the original material -- the songs, the script, the underlying micro-to-macro swoop of the story as it looked at years of history in America through a pop group and a family's journey. Dreamgirls is the sizzle and the steak, the glam and the grit, in one rousing piece of moviemaking.
As terms of art go, "Movie Musical" is like "Fresh-Frozen," a self-contained contrary idea. The musical is theater; it's live. There are no cuts; there are no shots; your point-of-view is determined by your ticket. And the musical gives us something -- life -- that the movies do not. It's why they're so damned sentimental, and one of the reasons they live for us. And even as an art form in decline -- and living in the tryout market for a musical based on Legally Blonde will make you think that the musical theater is in decline, or at least it does for me -- I'd wager that while more people in America have seen movies than live musicals, more people have been in live musicals than movies, those clumsy high-school productions and university revues, or standing as a baritone shepherd in a Nativity chorale.
Originally, the movie musical was musical theater -- or, at the least, a hell of a lot closer to musical theater than Chicago or Dreamgirls is: Long shots, big numbers, the broad hand gestures and broader emotional ones of the stage. Dreamgirls is tighter and swifter than the average movie musical, and that helps make for some nice change-ups; as the group squabbles and feuds through a musical number and the wronged party breaks off the song and storms out, she can walk into the chaos and flame of Detroit rioting. It's startling, and it works. It also helps overcome the backlash for Chicago that seemed to grow slowly after it won an Oscar for Best Picture in 2003-- that it was a nicely-made bit of singing and dancing but not really about anything aside from the hunger for fame and the public's willingness to swallow bunkum and hype, neither of which are news.
The basic plot of Dreamgirls is a fantasia variation on the history of both The Supremes and their label, Motown Records. After a lucky break and bit of vote-rigging at a Detroit talent show, The Dreams -- Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles), Lorelle Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) and Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) -- are wrangled into a last-minute position as back-up singers for R&B wildman James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy) by hustler and promoter Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx). Effie's brother C. C. (Keith Robinson) writes songs, and he helps Curtis craft a smoother sound for Early -- and Curtis wagers his fortunes and Cadillac dealership on founding Rainbow Records, to see if some of the money that seems to be flowing right out of the radio itself, for some artists and managers as rock and roll radio is being born, can make it into his pockets.
This kind of a dream will require a certain kind of idealism, and a certain kind of cruelty. An early scene -- which also demonstrates why Jennifer Hudson is a serious contender for Best Supporting Actress honors this year -- reveals that Curtis has released a vinyl disc of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream;" a later scene shows Curtis executing a bloodless takeover of the band that still draws tears.
And the songs are good, from the strut of "Steppin' to the Bad Side" to the swooping disco of "One Night Only." Some of the songs meant as pastiche are a bit obvious -- there's a riff on the Jackson Five's "ABC" that's lawsuit-close to the original -- but Henry Krieger's music and Tom Eyen's lyrics and book are strong and sturdy stuff, able to hold up under the camera's gaze. Condon wrote Chicago, and it's clear he was taking notes while on-set; at the same time, there's plenty of unique visual flavor in Dreamgirls -- from big, disco-dayglo animations to a perfect costuming touch like Murphy's hat as Thunder tries for a comeback.
And when the comeback doesn't look like it's going to happen, Early reaches for his works, and the look in Eddie Murphy's eyes is a thing of blank, wondrous sadness -- and serves as a constant reminder that there's more than music on the table for these people. Dreamgirls works better as melodrama than drama -- you're acutely aware that you're watching Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx and Grammy-winner Beyoncé when Curtis and Deena have scenes together -- but then again, all musicals do. Dreamgirls is the best movie musical we've had in a long time -- about the corrosive effects of compromise, about the death of dreams, about the nature of music and race in America -- and it also knows the secret behind every great shimmering piece of pop music: A broken heart, somewhere, taps out the baseline behind the notes.