And more. Director Bill Condon has found the right cast to put over a classic theatrical extravaganza, smartly reworked Tom Eyen's book to create a more rounded dramatic arc, and whips the whole thing along at a dizzying lick. If you're into musicals, this will put you in seventh heaven.
Eyen's hit Broadway musical riffed through Diana Ross's dirty laundry in a thinly disguised gloss on the Supremes rise to pop stardom. (No, Diana's laundry isn't all that dirty, its Motown boss Berry Gordy who is made to look like the villain of the piece). Condon keeps this as the backbone, augmenting its snappy potted history of black popular music with observations on the tumultuous social changes that transformed American society between the early 1960s and the late 1970s.
The opening is a dazzler, a glitzy talent show in the era when R&B stood for Rhythm and Blues, not predigested pop-hop (the real subtext of the movie). The Dreams are a girl group fronted by big voiced, big-boned Effie (Jennifer Hudson). They lose the contest, but win a new manager, Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx), and a big gig, singing backing vocals for James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy, channeling James Brown and Little Richard). They're on their way.
Condon keeps up a breathless pace throughout the girls' rise and rise. Even when they hit a bump - white radio stations won't play black records - the dilemma is swiftly resolved within the spin of the next 45. The pragmatic and determined Curtis breaks the bar by cashing in his used car business and jumping into the payola racket. If you can't beat 'em, buy 'em.
Romantic attachments form: in an underwritten (or heavily cut) role, Anika Noni Rose is Lorrell, who pairs off with Jimmy Early despite the wife he's left behind. At first Curtis hooks up with Effie, who is after all the talented one. Proud as she is, she can't believe her luck - and she's right, it doesn't last. His eye wanders stage left, to the slimmer, paler, prettier 'Deena' (Beyonce Knowles). She's hasn't got the pipes, but Curtis intuits that looks are going to count for more when it comes to crossing over into the mainstream.
We're an hour into the movie when it pulls its own cross-over. Up to now the R&B and soul numbers have all been framed as performance pieces either in rehearsal, live, or recorded for an audience. Suddenly that pretense is dropped as Effie lets loose with the pop opera anthem 'I'm telling you'.
It's the show's biggest number, and former American Idol finalist Jennifer Hudson sings it like every last syllable is being ripped from her guts. (Or more likely, out of Simon Cowell's.) It's this virtuoso display - a literal showstopper that has apparently had audiences on their feet applauding in US cinemas - that has made Hudson a shoo-in for an Oscar. But it's also at this point that I began to zone out.
Why? Because phony Motown still has some energy, especially the way Eddie Murphy goes at it, while the worked up emotionalism of Broadway ballads and show tunes just leaves me cold. Or at least these ones do. It's not just that the songs are mediocre (which they are), it's that the more emotional the lyrics, the harder it becomes to overlook the film's clichéd melodramatics and paper-thin characters.
The most complex figure is Curtis, the Svengali who sells out for success, but Condon has no interest in him - his heart is pinned on the two divas, Effie and Deena, whose rise and fall and rise will make up Acts II and III.
Condon is a smart filmmaker (he made Gods and Monsters and Kinsey, and wrote the screenplay for Chicago) but here he seems in a constant hurry to cut to the next showstopper. Dramatic scenes are ruthlessly pruned to two or three minutes, so they resemble nothing so much as a string of angry pop video intros. Meanwhile the movie's non-stop pastiche of passing fads in music and fashion only makes the performances seem plastic and hollow.
Of course I'm in the minority on this one - and I won't be surprised if Dreamgirls bags a fistful of Oscars next month. But that's part of the problem: for a movie that pretends to expose the tinsel behind the tinsel, it desperately craves applause and adulation.
In reality, the Supremes first singer, Florence Ballard died in poverty in her early 30s. In Dreamgirls, Effie White is allowed a triumphant comeback - sweet vindication for Hudson, of course, but also for the hoariest showbiz clichés.