Dreamgirls ★★½

A huge and conspicuously indulgent waste of an enthusiastic cast, this offensively superficial musical follows the career of a girl group clearly based on the Supremes and their run-ins with a corrupt, manipulative manager clearly based on Berry Gordy; but its Broadway slickness renders it thoroughly gutless, and it manages to inject an artificial happy ending into a story that has no ending at all, by design. It begins well with a sense of constant motion well fitting with this period of rock & roll, R&B and pop, story information interpolated effortlessly into the song montages -- but the wheels start to come off when a drama with musical numbers abruptly becomes a musical after half an hour or so, a transformation it's hard to come back from. This is the first sign that Bill Condon and the producers don't really know what they're doing, and the last two thirds of the film are just a collection of showbiz clichés (the last they should have needed with the Supremes as their inspiration) built as an excuse for the increasingly desperate tunes.

With all due respect, these songs by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen couldn't be a less accurate representation of either the period or of the Motown sound; they sound like bland AM pop or very light soul from fifteen years later. To be frank, if Motown's records sounded like this tripe we wouldn't remember it in the first place and the film would have no need to exist. Moreover, while Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson are genuinely dazzling in their multifaceted, demanding parts, the characterization fits poorly with the other casting decisions. We're meant to believe that Beyoncé is somehow a compromised frontwoman for crossover appeal in the same way Diana Ross was: that she's not actually the most dynamic or expressive performer in the group, just the most physically magnetic. For sure, Hudson's voice is technically the strongest we hear, but it's difficult to buy that Beyoncé, who's such an impeccable and overwhelmingly charismatic performer as well as a versatile and immaculately controlled singer, would be getting shoved into the same awkward situations Gordy inflicted on the great but much more tentative Ross. Dispensing with this dynamic, as well as the sad demise of Florence Ballard and the well-vocalized resentments of Mary Wilson, robs this of the entire reason it might have had to exist. These actors deserve better, and so does the music they're not singing.