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A Supremes Retelling 

In the world of Broadway musicals adapted to the screen, Dreamgirls makes good on the promise of eye-popping splashiness and bigger-than-life performances. Immense production numbers featuring dazzling choreography reach incredible heights. Cameras run all over the place, creating an excitement that couldn't even have been considered when this was a stage production.

Too bad, then, that most of the songs in the film aren't near the caliber of everything going on around them. With only a few exceptions, the music tends to bring everything down instead of elevating it.

Of those exceptions, though, a couple are knockouts -- more for their performance than for the songs themselves. Eddie Murphy, playing the caddish, James Brown-like soul/rock singer James "Thunder" Early, displays an astonishing amount of energetic attitude in his introductory tune, "Fake Your Way to the Top," then makes a lesser song, "Cadillac Car," seem much bigger than it really is.

Yet the film's supposed showstopper, "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going," as sung by the story's up-and-coming Effie (the up-and-coming Jennifer Hudson) is big and brash and emotional, but it brings the film's momentum to a halt when it ends. And Hudson's plaintive singing of "Family" can't hide the fact that the song is nothing more than a sappy helping of schmaltz.

Fortunately, that's not to be said for at least the first hour of the film. Set in Detroit and spanning the 1960s, it tells the tumultuous story of what one character refers to as "the world of R & amp;B." Plenty of comparisons can be made between the singing trio portrayed in the film -- first called the Dreamettes, then just the Dreams -- and the Supremes. But it's really just bits and pieces of that Motown group's story merged into a series of fictional situations. (Yet there are more than a few times that Beyonce Knowles's Deena character looks uncannily like Diana Ross, especially when she enters her "dressed-up doll" stage.)

It opens on the Dreamettes (Knowles, Hudson, and Anika Noni Rose) entering yet another contest, which they've been doing since they started singing together at age 12. They don't win, but scrappy car salesman and wannabe show biz manager Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) sees and hears their raw talent. He hooks them up with "Thunder" Early, who's always looking for new backup singers mostly because he can't control himself around beautiful women. Problems immediately ensue. Lead singer Effie, who can belt out a song and make it seem like she's simply breathing, has starry eyes -- she wants to keep on singing lead and not be stuck behind some other singer.

Others want a share of the spotlight too. Effie's brother C.C. (Keith Robinson) has always written songs, and now he's determined to get someone to sing them, with hopes of finally making some money. Then there's Thunder, who regularly blows audiences sky-high with his concert performances, but can't catch a break when it comes to radio play.

Everyone in the film, in fact, has big dreams. Some will see them come true, if only for a while, before someone else bursts them. Others will succeed, then fail, then succeed, then fail, then hope for yet another "comeback." The film places viewers right in the story's audiences, takes them backstage to get a glimpse at some of the business's politics, and lets them in on some private office backstabbing sessions, where management decisions about "what's right for the group" can make or break careers and lives.

The pace of the film is frantic. During the first half it literally takes off and flies forward, tracing not only all of those performer-related ups and downs, but also the rise of Curtis. As James and his fabulous backup singers move from small clubs to huge stages -- replete with dancers and even more accompanying singers -- Curtis can be seen spending money like crazy. On the down side, his new mantra, "It's only business," sends him on a downward spin to villainy.

Writer/director Bill Condon clearly knows how to direct drama (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey) and how to write screenplays for musicals (Chicago). He's at his strongest here when he presents a rehearsal scene which smoothly segues into a concert performance, or when he starts a song on one stage, carries it through to a tour bus going to another city, and finishes the song on another stage.

The film does suffer some in the second half, when much of the energy is depleted due to the story's eventual darkness, which leads to some muddled writing. Holding it all together, though, through dark and light -- and this should be no surprise -- is Eddie Murphy, whose almost wordless emotionalism near the end is as strong as the flamboyance he shows early on. He should be nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

DREAMGIRLS
(wait for the DVD)
Rated PG-13
Written and directed by Bill Condon
Starring Jennifer Hudson, Beyonce Knowles, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy

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