It’s not the perfect modern movie musical, but Dreamgirls may represent the genre’s perfect storm. You have a beloved Broadway property, a fictionalized tale of a legendary record label and its outsize talents. You have a Hollywood director, Bill Condon, who has already performed miracles (he wrote the Chicago screenplay and convinced us Brendan Fraser could act in Gods and Monsters). You have a cast from all over the entertainment ionosphere: Beyoncé Knowles from the top of the pop charts, Jennifer Hudson from the basement of American Idol, and Anika Noni Rose from Broadway as the three Supremes — uh, Dreamettes; comedian Eddie Murphy reviving his career as soul star Jimmy Early; and matinee idol Jamie Foxx as the controlling label owner. Even Danny Glover’s here. So’s Loretta Devine, one of the original Broadway stars.
How does Condon keep everything spinning without the pieces flying off in different directions? He doesn’t; he just turns up the volume and hopes you won’t notice. Dreamgirls is oddly structured: The first half is a classic backstage musical with distinct performance numbers (as in Ray); in the second half, the songs are mostly integrated, with dialogue rendered as R&B arias. The transition from one style to the other is bumpy, and your own tastes may determine which pleases you more — the deep-souled period charm of the beginning or the gale-force emotions of the climax. Only the first half is true to the Motown sound, though: Those big numbers that won Hudson her Oscar (”And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” ”I Am Changing”) are pure Reagan-era Broadway.
But everything about this movie is immense, even more so in its Dreamgirls: Two-Disc Showstopper Edition on DVD. The standard making-of has been inflated to nearly two hours (with additional chapters on editing, lighting, and costumes), and one staggers out of the largesse with a newfound appreciation for talents like cute-as-a-button choreographer Fatima Robinson. There are auditions and screen tests, including one in which Knowles tries to meld Diana Ross and Marilyn Monroe and, contrary to Condon’s opinion, falls flat. (Rose’s tryout, by comparison, is killer.) Storyboards, costume designs, and fake album covers and posters give a sense of the labor involved, as do sequences that incorporate rehearsal footage featuring unsung stand-ins.
There’s a healthy dose of alternate and extended scenes as well, and Condon discusses having had to cut nearly 15 minutes of the film because test audiences experienced song ”fatigue.” In truth, that’s still the case. Dreamgirls doesn’t wear out its welcome so much as beat an audience lovingly into submission. You may be ready to get on with your life, but, damn it, this movie’s not going. B