Industry watchers expressed shock last week when an early Oscar frontrunner was denied a Best Picture nomination, but had any of them sat through the movie? ‘Dreamgirls’ traces the fractious rise of a Supremes-like singing group from the American ‘chitlin’ circuit’ to worldwide stardom, a voyage that pushes aside big, brassy Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), the Dreams’ lead vocalist, in favour of skinny, feather-voiced Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles). Knowles does an excellent Diana Ross imitation, but she only has two expressions; Eddie Murphy makes up the deficit as a bawdy soul singer who never quite crosses over, but he’s only reviving his old ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit, ‘James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party’. And if audiences hadn’t been briefed in advance that they are watching a career-making Movie Magic Moment when Hudson caterwauls her way through ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’, one might have mistaken all the yowling and yawping for an experiment in ritual humiliation.
This is, alas, a Motown-inspired musical that’s indebted to the melisma-addicted exhibitionism of modern R&B. It doesn’t produce a single hummable song. It features the lyrics ‘You are so horribly Satanic.’ It reserves singing and dancing for the stage until Jamie Foxx just randomly bursts into verse while strolling down the street. ‘Dreamgirls’ wants to be Effie but ends up as Deena: thin, smooth, unburdened by a personality.