If you love Broadway musicals, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this movie, with its no-business-like-show-business-y numbers.

By: Elise Nakhnikian
   Irony poisons the core of Dreamgirls, the glossy new musical that’s been flacked everywhere lately as it puts in its bid for a fistful of Oscars.
   A barely fictionalized tale of how Motown mogul Berry Gordy created a watered-down, whites-friendly version of the R&B that had previously played only on the chitlin’ circuit, Dreamgirls admires the vision and W.E.B. Dubois-style economic self-sufficiency of the Gordy character, Curtis Taylor Jr. But it casts a cold eye on Curtis’ exploitation of his talent, and on the way he systematically drained power and soul from acts whose sounds he controlled as tightly as their images. That’s why the heroine of this show is not the sugar-sweet, conventionally beautiful, thin-voiced Deena (Beyoncé Knowles), the lead singer who takes The Dreams, a "girl group" modeled on The Supremes, into crossover stardom. It’s the group’s original diva, the full-bodied, full-throated and proudly opinionated Effie (Jennifer Hudson), who Curtis exiles because her voice is "too special."
   Yet the filmmakers — like the Broadway producers of the popular early-’80s stage musical from which the movie is faithfully adapted — seem to have missed the point of their own story. Rather than celebrating the pop appeal of Motown groups like The Supremes, whose music retained just enough soul to sound fresh next to syrupy white contemporaries like Pat Boone, Dreamgirls’ overblown numbers finish the job Gordy started. The Dreams sing a couple of sprightly songs that faintly echo the Supremes’ infectious girlish energy, though they sound more like refrains than whole numbers. But most of their songs are Broadway-style ballads, more Little Mermaid than Motown. And, with the noteworthy exception of a dead-on Jackson Five imitation featuring a heartbreakingly vivacious little Michael clone, the other singers in Curtis’ stable are just as tightly hobbled as The Dreams.
   The film’s excellent costumes and sets evoke whole eras and great singers at a glance, but the soundtrack keeps pulling us back to the Great White — and how — Way.
   Of course, a whole lot of people love Broadway musicals. If you’re one of them, you’ll probably find a lot to enjoy in this movie. There’s enough raw momentum in the first half as we watch the Dreams and their producer head for the top, to keep things energized, even if there’s never any real doubt about where they’re going.
   And the girls are fun to watch. Knowles seems as hemmed in by her part as her character is by Curtis, since the underwritten, probably lawsuit-wary role robs Diana Ross of her reportedly razor-sharp elbows, making Deena an impossibly sweet and passive pawn. But Knowles does look amazing, rocking everything from the spangly mermaid-shaped gowns Deena wriggles into at the start of her career to the meticulously groomed Afro and extravagant eyelashes of a decade or so later. Also gorgeous — and more affecting — is Anika Noni Rose as Lorrell, the other member of the original group who stays in to the end. Initially as disingenuous as Deena, Lorrell learns faster and matures more, achieving a moving dignity with time. And Hudson’s powerhouse number, "And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going," is every bit as good as you’ve heard it is — maybe even worth the price of admission.
   But the energy begins to ebb after The Dreams have made it and Curtis has established what’s described as "the biggest Afro-American business in the country." Co-writer-director Bill Condon (who also co-wrote and directed Kinsey and wrote the screenplay for Chicago) shoehorns in documentary footage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech and the Detroit riots of the late ’60s in a bid for relevance. But the clips, and a clumsily directed scene in which Deena and Curtis come out of the studio into the middle of the riots, feel totally out of place in this airbrushed fantasy — especially since there’s barely a hint in their lyrics to indicate that the singers have been affected by what’s going on offstage.
   Even their interior lives don’t feel quite real. As the movie peeks in on first one character and then another to see how they’re doing during its second hour, the lack of time invested in character development in the first half starts to show. It’s hard to care how things will turn out — or to believe she has the chops to pull off a complex role — when Deena talks about longing to play a "real" part in a movie rather than the idealized Cleopatra Curtis wants her to portray in a property he’s developing. Even Effie’s story is so thin that the connection Hudson made with us in her show-stopping number gets weaker rather than stronger as she marches defiantly toward her inevitable triumph, utterly unconvincing as a proud woman whose confidence is sagging after years on welfare.
   Dreamgirls will give you a whole new appreciation of Motown — but only because its no-business-like-show-business-y numbers make it clear just how much soul there still was in Berry Gordy’s sanitized "product."
Rated PG-13 for language, some sexuality and drug content.