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Category:    Home > Reviews > Musical > Soul > Pop > Drama > Comedy > Record Business > Dreamgirls – 2-Disc Showstopper Edition (HD-DVD/Blu-ray/DVD-Video)

Dreamgirls – 2-Disc Showstopper Edition (HD-DVD/Blu-ray/DVD-Video)

 

Picture: A-/A-/B-     Sound: B+/B/B     Extras: B     Film: B+

 

 

Because no one has been able to take on the many stories of Motown records directly, several attempts have been made to address the stories that mix the good and bad to examine the important work of one of the most groundbreaking record companies of all time.  The story that has been the most amazing and even polarizing has been that of The Supremes, the gold standard of “girl groups” and the most Pop chart successful of all Motown acts extending to the solo career of Diana Ross who (unlike Michael Jackson, who found his later success at Epic Records from the mid-1970s onward) has the majority of her success at the label.  Besides the drama Sparkle, the boldest examination of the story comes from the stage musical Dreamgirls.

 

When it first hit the stage in the early 1980s, it was a groundbreaker and was so popular, And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going was a #1 Soul chart hit that even crossed-over to the Pop Top 30 thanks to the originator of the role of Effie White, a variation of rejected original founder/original lead vocalist for the Primettes, who became The Supremes as she was still with them.  If any song was the return of the repressed and said something that needed to be said, it is this one.

 

At the time the original version became a smash hit, Ross was still at the end of her original Motown years with Berry Gordy, but was about to leave for a record contract at RCA Records.  This musical and Michael Jackson’s career sabotaged the RCA success along with mixed music output that her career never recovered from.  Where the original “actually” ends in the mid to late 1970s and within its time (before Ross leaves Motown) when it hits the stage, the new film actually expands the timeline to the end of the Ross/Gordy relationship and adds new songs as a result.

 

At a time when African Americans had big R&B hits that would not cross over to the Pop charts unless they were rerecorded and ruined by white artists, Berry Gordy had been a writer of some great R&B hits, some of which did crossover.  In all this, he saw an opportunity to crate music and a company that could take advantage of The Civil Rights Movement and what he felt a majority of listeners unseen, noticed or ignored by the major record labels would buy.  Motown was born.

 

Jamie Foxx plays the Gordy part in the guise of Curtis Taylor, Jr., who sells cars (that is where this Musical version starts taking artistic license and becomes its own entity) and wants to make records.  He is working with the Soul talents of the time, as signified by James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy in an ace performance) who is as innovative as James Brown, Little Richard, Joe Tex and all the other greats of the time.  Jimmy is a groundbreaker and touring as he and Taylor hit a talent show.  That is where the Dreamettes meet Taylor and the results will shake the music work.

 

There is Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles doing Diana Ross), Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose as Mary Wilson, minus any of the controversy between her and Ross in real life) and Effie (Jennifer Hudson’s Academy Award-winning performance, much deserved) making up their vocal group, one that has been performing since they were children.  Taylor gives them a break to sing behind Jimmy and the tour is on.  Eventually, as the film takes off with its own hybrid characters, its own subplots and dramas beyond Motown Records (Rainbow Records in the film) that do an interesting job of encapsulating many Soul labels and artists of the time, it never loses sight of its main points.

 

Effie rightly wanted to be lead singer again, even if it was on a few records, but Taylor has to stick with what was working to keep the label going and they get romantically involved in the film (whether that happened to their real life versions is unlikely) and then he throws her out of the group and dream she created, even if it is he who made it a commercial success.  She and her real life equivalent were denied it all big time; a story that echoes, especially for African American women who give so much and never get their due.  That is why her character and fate hit such a profound nerve and it goes beyond race and gender.  The theme of selling out, especially ones roots and the truth is almost (and thankfully) an obsession with Dreamgirls.  The Musical and this writer/director Bill Condon’s film (based on Tom Eyen’s book) never lose sight of these things.

 

Though darker thematically than it is given credit for, it is also about the various struggles for success and has a great sense of humor about them.  References to The Civil Rights Movement are not as trivial as some have tried to paint the film.  Instead, they are markers about where the characters are as they rise to success and Taylor in particular rises to power.  It was remarkable upon its first theatrical release that many white male critics in particular in their negative reviews (see www.RottenTomatoes.com for details) suddenly not only bashed the film, but remarkably became instant experts on Soul Music and African American culture (some even more or less indicating they knew who it was to be Black!!!) when telling their readers about how the film made them wish Soul Music never happened (!?!) or how Hudson’s performance was nothing more than screaming!

 

Then there were those who tried to say the film had no soul at all, which seemed more ignorant when placed in context to the rest of their reviews.  Fans have said that the music was not as good as the stage version, but as compared to what Ken Russell did with the music for The Who’s Rock Opera Tommy in his visually great but often musically problematic 1975 film, Dreamgirls score has survived nicely in tact.  Then there are Motown and Supremes fans who never liked it to begin with, but the music tells so much of the real politick and emotional truth of the story even down to this film’s newer and decent new songs.  They are like the other songs in that they are Showtunes, R&B and Pop records.

 

As for those film critics who are “hidden” Soul Music scholars, another sign of the ignorance is that Motown’s hits combined R&B and Pop in a way that were not purely R&B, but never betrayed their R&B roots.  They were also Rock songs in the ways their energy and attitude made so many of them classics people still sing and play to this day.  Compare to the direct Soul of Aretha Franklin (from Detroit, but not Motown Records as Big Chill fans keep getting wrong, but Atlantic Records) or even the more complex time signatures and deeper Blues/Pop of al the Bacharach/David hit performed at the time by Dionne Warwick.  Dreamgirls still honors their sounds as well without missing a beat in letting the music enhance and forward its narrative.

 

Ultimately though, the question is how good a film is this?  Better than most realize.  In a few years as more and more people discover it in these optical format editions and elsewhere, many will be sorry they did not see it on the biggest screen possible with the largest sound system around because this is truly one of the few films of 2006 that was made for big screen presentation and like the great films and Musicals of the past, will overwhelm most living rooms, play rooms and home theaters with its richness in detail, relentlessly good acting performances all around, energy, music and well-roundedness that shows the everyone in the making truly loved this (Danny Glover, Keith Robinson, Jaleel White, John Lithgow and Loretta Devine are among the better know actors who also shine) and knew how special it was.  Especially now when most films are so unambitious and disposable, Dreamgirls is a real gem.

 

The 2.35 X 1 image looks good in the anamorphically enhanced DVD-Video, but it is simply no match for the amazing 1080p digital High Definition versions in Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats, where the film proves once again that it is one of the best-looking films of 2006.  With hardly any digital work, the John Myhre Production Design and rich work of Director of Photography Tobias A. Schliessler is just amazingly solid, palpable and highly cinematic in a way digital HD shooting and/or MTV-style sloppy editing cannot begin to touch.

 

Even more than Chicago, which I also liked and really looked & sounded great in Blu-ray, there is a sense of the screen being filled up here in a way most recent musicals (especially a bomb like Rent) have missed.  Though you can have a rich-looking musical like Joel Schumacher’s take on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom Of The Opera, but it takes even more to consistently make the film seem as much alive as a stage presentation as possible.  Dreamgirls has a flow like nothing since the first Grease (1978, reviewed elsewhere on this site) in its best moments and that is not easy and not just from sets, costumes and camerawork, but an exceptionally dense combination there of that moves and moves the narrative along the best.  The better this all works with the best combination of technical achievement and energy, the more amazing it is to watch.

 

Though the sound mix is impressive as it was in the theater’s that could play it, Dolby Digital 5.1 (labeled Plus on the HD-DVD) is the only soundtrack here and are about the same in all three versions for sound.  The Dolby is a little richer in the HD-DVD version, and not just because of the Plus label, but it is only nominally better.  Too bad, because Paramount usually includes DTS and DreamWorks has supported the format in the past, but its absence here is unfortunate.  Still, the original sound master is impressive enough to make the Dolby adequate for now until Paramount starts supporting a higher audio format like Dolby TrueHD or DTS HD Lossless.

 

Extras include a Jennifer Hudson performance exclusive to these sets, twelve extended/alternate scenes including full-length musical numbers for fans & those who will want to study the work beyond the final theatrical cut of the film, the Music Video clip for Beyoncé’s hit Listen, a new song in the mode of Ross’ Motown farewell hit It’s My Turn that also happened to be a movie theme song, Building The Dream feature-length documentary, over 1,100 still images, Dream Logic: Film Editing, Dressing The Dreams: Costume Design showing the amazing work of Sharen Davis, Center Stage: Theatrical Lighting, Beyoncé Knowles screen test, Ain’t No Party – Anika Noni Rose audition, Steppin’ To The Bad Side – Fatima Robinson choreography audition and storyboarded previsualization sequences.

 

These are a very rich set of extras that makes it worth getting the whole set over the DVD-Video-only single editions.  But then the film is exceptional in ways it will take time for the audience to catch up with.  Especially in the HD formats, Dreamgirls is bound to remain one of the top home video releases in 2007.

 

 

-   Nicholas Sheffo


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