Music and movies have frequently gone hand-in-hand together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
If Hollywood can score a major hit without having to come up with something original, then Tinseltown will inevitably go there. On top of pursuing projects based on the lives of musicians, as evidenced by the award-winning successes of Ray and Walk the Line, film studios and producers, in the early-to-mid 2000s were also looking to the stage for projects they could adapt as movie projects.
This wasn’t a new thing when Dreamgirls premiered in 2006, as it was being released not long after movie versions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s phenomenal interpretation of Phantom of the Opera, and The Producers, the latter being a Broadway musical version of Mel Brooks’ 1967 film. With Dreamgirls, Paramount Pictures and Dreamworks were about to get the best of both worlds: a music biopic and a stage adaptation, even if technically speaking it’s not a biopic. Dreamgirls is not about The Supremes or Motown Records, but it’s not hard to see what the inspirations are. It was already a success on the stage and had been running since 1981 to critical acclaim and considerable commercial success.
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Going from the stage to the screen is not an easy task, and even if a stage show manages to become a film, blockbuster status and critical acclaim are not virtual guarantees. It’s a delicate act trying to make something from the stage work on the silver screen. They are, and always have been vastly different mediums, and while sometimes magic can be struck when turning a film into a stage show (as evidenced by the success of The Producers, The Full Monty and Once), the same is not true when the journey is being made the other way.
The Producers might have started life a comedy classic and then became a Broadway favourite, but when trying to turn the stage musical into a film it was greeted less warmly than when it was treading the boards. Similarly, Chris Columbus’ film adaptation of Jonathon Larson’s Rent was met with lower-than-expected box office and a muted critical response despite featuring the original cast of the stage show in the roles they originated (I actually rather like it). Tick, Tick…Boom!, Lin Manuel-Miranda’s biopic of Larson and the story of the creation of Rent fared much better and was one of the very best films of 2021.
Film adaptations of stage musicals are not new. Going as far back as the late 60s and early 70s there were big-budget adaptations of Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar, while Grease went from stage hit to blockbuster movie success in 1978. The mixed track record of these things means that it’s sometimes hard to pin down what might work or not. If there is one thing to be sure of it’s that Dreamgirls works magnificently as a film. The music, the staging, the performances, everything comes together so perfectly that it isn’t a surprise that the film was a hit in 2006 and became a presence on the awards circuit.
If it wasn’t for the Academy deciding that it was the turn of Martin Scorsese to finally get something from them, then one could argue that Dreamgirls was the film that should have taken home the top prize. The Academy were clearly in a musical mood that decade, since the film adaptation of Chicago took home many prizes in 2002. If one wanted to be controversial about it, it could be argued that race was a factor in the always conservative Academy somewhat ignoring Dreamgirls for the Best Picture prize.
There is a lot to love here and you can see its appeal to awards voters. The musical numbers have a big, grandiose feeling to them, filled with heart and passionate performance, but never losing sight of the intimate; it features a previously best known comedic actor going serious and doing it magnificently; there are award favourite actors dotted throughout the film, and the big moments hit in epically emotional ways.
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Director Bill Condon had just come off doing Gods and Monsters, a film account of the life of Universal Horror director James Whale, and while Dreamgirls isn’t about The Supremes, it’s as close to a film about The Supremes we have gotten. While one might find it understandable to criticise the choice of a white director to tell a (fictionalised) account of African American musicians, Condon does direct the film well and finds the right balance between drama and historical references. The film plays out against real-life American history of the time with racial tensions of the US playing a part in the background of its story.
How the band is perceived by white audiences is a factor that comes into play as well, none more so by their manager Curtis (Jamie Foxx) who makes the band a success but is always shown to be keeping an eager eye on commercial success over artistic ambitions. The combustible nature of the period is captured superbly, and Condon’s screenplay is never naïve enough to bypass just how much of a factor race is when it comes to these characters trying to make it in a world that has been unfairly built to be against them in pursuit of success. However, one wonders just how much more potent these themes might have been with a black director behind the camera.
As a piece of filmmaking and storytelling, it’s a tremendous piece of work, and that can’t be disputed. The casting is perfect, with the players made up of both great actors and musicians making their mark on cinema. It’s easy to see why so much was made of Beyonce being in the film, and she is fantastic throughout, and while Jamie Foxx gets to use his own singing voice this time after being dubbed in Ray, it’s Jennifer Hudson who is the film’s heart and soul. It was Hudson who took home the film’s sole acting award, and it was one that was much deserved. Not only does she deliver some of the film’s very best music performances, but she is also a powerful centre of the story as Effie Grey.
While this is a stage adaptation, its focus on a trio of singing stars means that it functions on a narrative level similar to that of That Thing You Do, Ray, Walk the Line or (shudder) Glitter. We witness The Dreams become superstars, but so much of the drama comes from the increasing success of the band leading to Effie being pushed to the side out of fear that she may not appeal to a mainstream (i.e., white) audience, and eventually out of the band, in favour of Deena (Beyonce) becoming the lead singer and eventually the most prominent member.
Not only does Deena steal the focus, but also the attention of their manager Curtis, who increasingly becomes the antagonistic centre of the story, trying to control Deena’s attempts at a movie career by wanting her to star in his version of Cleopatra, but also interfering with Effie’s attempts at a comeback by stealing her song written for her by her estranged brother. Victory, validation and forgiveness come to the girls by the end of the film and they achieve victory over Curtis, but it doesn’t come without years of heartbreak and loss in the interim. The film’s other acclaimed performance came from Eddie Murphy as Jimmy Early, a revelatory turn from the comedy actor which came after several years of starring in broader, family-flavoured comedies.
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It looked at one moment as if he was a guaranteed winner for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, but the release of Norbit was seen as scuppering that chance. It is a superlative performance from an actor that had gone from edgier R-rated comedies in the 80s to things like Dr Dolittle and The Klumps in the 90s. Both Jimmy and The Dreams are on a narrative course similar to that of many a pop biopic and while it’s easy to see who the characters are inspired by, Condon’s screenplay and the performances of Hudson, Knowles and Aniki Nani Rose gives the entire film a powerful dramatic heft. For someone who was also starring in a notoriously bad film involving himself playing a woman while adorning a ‘fat suit’ around the same time, Murphy was showing just how fantastic a talent he was with his turn as an increasingly embittered Taylor who ends up finding tragic solace with drugs.
Along with Effie’s life as a single mother away from the bright lights of California, as Curtis and The Dreams become ever more popular, Dreamgirls perhaps is as potent and powerful a dramatic portrayal of so many of the tropes that one finds in musician focused films. It might be dressed up in the flourish of musical numbers, but it’s never less than dramatic and brilliant, and when the conclusion comes, with validation for Effie and poetic justice doled out to Curtis, you’ll find yourself getting swept along with it.