'Dreamgirls' hit theaters in December 2006 with more pre-release buzz than any other film in recent memory. Even as far back as a year before its theatrical debut, breathless press reports had already proclaimed the film to be the second coming of the Big Hollywood Musical. The predictions were sky high: 'Dreamgirls' was going to break box office records, sweep the Academy Awards, and turn 'American Idol' "loser" Jennifer Hudson into a superstar.
Looking back now, I can't help but wonder if the film was ultimately harmed by virtue of its own hype. Certainly 'Dreamgirls' was no flop, taking in $100 million at the domestic box office and earning an impressive eight Oscar nominations. Yet still, it never managed to reach quite as high into the pop culture stratosphere as expected. Critical reaction was surprisingly mixed, the film didn't win Best Picture or Best Director nod, and only Hudson (who did take home the trophy for Best Supporting Actress) managed to emerge unscathed. Against all odds, 'Dreamgirls' just didn't capture the cultural zeitgeist in the way that most predicted.
The good news, however, is that free from the heightened expectations of its theatrical run, 'Dreamgirls' can now be appreciated simply for the movie it is. It's flawed, yes. But it also can reach such frenzied, near-orgasmic heights that even if the sum is no greater than its parts, well... what glorious parts they are.
'Dreamgirls' was adapted from the Broadway musical of the same name, and despite what its producers continue to claim publicly, it's about as close as you can get to the real-life story of the Supremes without being sued. Jamie Foxx stars as Curtis Taylor, Jr., a sharp, wide-eyed car salesman with dreams of making it big in the music business. After he spots powerhouse local singing trio Deena (Beyonce), Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) and Effie (Hudson) at a local talent contest, he redubs them The Dreams and takes them on a whirlwind, rags-to-riches tale of epic proportions.
Of course, all that rises quickly must also fall hard, and "Dreamgirls' will hit just about every note we expect from this kind of biopic. Director Bill Condon, who also adapted the screenplay, uses the time-honored convention of flashy music montages to jump forward in time and cover nearly a twenty-year span. The narrative makes grand leaps quickly -- in the space of about four minutes, Taylor goes from scrappy car man to record mogul without breaking a sweat. This sets the stage for the heart of the film's drama, where Taylor will seduce Effie in an effort to distract her while he secretly grooms Deena to take over the role of lead singer. Effie, of course, won't go quietly (this girl does nothing quietly, as Hudson's pipes ably showcase). As solidarity in the ranks of the Dreams crumbles, Taylor gets involved in shady payola dealings, including arranging for a disastrous movie debut for Deena, which backfires handsomely.
How all of these strands resolve themselves may seem predictable at the outset, but the tonal choices Condon eventually makes are anything but. The film's veneer is deceiving, using glamour like a weapon to disarm us before the eventual descent into betrayal, jealousy and self-destructive narcissism. All of this plays into our expectations for a behind-the-scenes musical perfectly, because as much as we want the big costumes and the grand song-and-dance, we also want the backstage cat-fighting, the nervous breakdowns and the inevitable plunge into despair and drug addiction.
Still, Condon's approach seems more restrained at times than perhaps it should be. While elements of the story are certainly more hard-hitting -- most notably the tragic subplot of fellow Taylor discovery James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy, in a career-redefining role) -- these detours don't dig deep enough to transcend the glitzy surface. I was especially disappointed by film's climax, which sidesteps what would be the natural, though far darker conclusion to the story in favor of an emotionally unfulfilling big group-hug of a finale.
The film also has some basic structural problems. 'Dreamgirls' is very fragmented and episodic, to the point where there's often little-to-no connective tissue between scenes. The result can be a bit distancing -- it's often hard to understand how the characters make the emotional leaps they do. In one moment, Effie is in love with Taylor, and then two scenes later, she is having a near-nervous breakdown after being booted from the group. Seeing as 'Dreamgirls' is essentially a music video of a movie, it's jumpy nature is to be expected -- still, as a cohesive narrative, the approach pays few dividends.
Still, there is no denying that 'Dreamgirls' is an often fabulous musical. There are some truly great showpieces here -- from Hudson's instant-classic rendering of "And I'm Telling You I'm not Going" (the scene alone guaranteed Hudson her Oscar), to Murphy's onstage breakdown as the heroin-addicted Early, to Beyonce's under-appreciated, emotional rendition of "Listen." Condon also nails the core emotional notes. Effie's feelings of rejection and disbelief are palpable, yet we also understand how Deena could betray her lifelong friend when fame beckons. Even if not all of 'Dreamgirls' works, it effectively and entertainingly conveys the essential, oft-told theme of the story -- be careful what you wish for, because the price of success is never cheap.
Does 'Dreamgirls' ultimately transcend its limitations? Only time will tell. But at over two hours, at least it's never boring. Fantastic to look at, even better to listen to, and with a wonderful cast that never gives less than 110 percent, it's impossible to hate this film. I have no idea if anyone will still remember the 'Dreamgirls' five years from now, but for every uneven frame of its 130 minutes, it is impossible to take your eyes off it.
As the debut next-gen release from DreamWorks (via parent distributor Paramount) expectations were once again high for 'Dreamgirls,' but thankfully -- in term of picture quality, at least -- this one really delivers.
Following Paramount's standard next-gen operating procedure, 'Dreamgirls' is presented in 1080p/VC-1 on HD DVD, with Blu-ray getting an MPEG-2 encode. The results look terrific either way. This is a glorious, colorful image, and despite the lack of a single explosion or car chase, still makes for great demo material. The source is flawless, blacks are rock solid, and contrast is excellent. The image has sensational depth and clarity, with the photo-real, three-dimensional quality that we all hope for when we pop in a new HD DVD release. The transfer is also as sharp as a tack, with even the darkest sections of the image boasting excellent shadow detail.
As always however, there are a couple of aspects of the transfer that some may take issue with. Colors are so rich that at times they look impossibly vivid -- this doesn't always lend an air of realism to the film, but it does appear to be consistent with the visual intent of the filmmakers, so I can't really knock the image for that. There is also the occasional use of stock footage, plus a slightly more grainy look to select shots (particularly during the '70s-era third act). But again, these appear to be a stylistic choices, so whatever. 'Dreamgirls' is five-star video.
Sigh. I just don't get Paramount's approach to audio on their next-gen releases. This is yet another dual-format release from the studio that sees the two formats receive unequal treament, with this HD DVD edition getting a 1.5mbps Dolby Digital-Plus track, while the Blu-ray gets a 640kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track. Interestingly, though, I didn't find the lower bitrate of the Blu-ray produced any truly audible drop in quality, at least enough to warrant boosting the star rating for the HD DVD. But that's not really what rankles, anyway; what really gets my goat is that 'Dreamgirls' is the one new release that really demands high-resolution audio. Why won't Paramount support Dolby TrueHD? DTS-MA? Or plain 'ol uncompressed PCM? It's a head-scratcher, and by far my biggest disappointment with this high-defrelease.
Having said that, on its own merits the Dolby track certainly sounds good. 'Dreamgirls' is an impeccably produced film, and its songs are classic. The music soars -- dynamics are excellent, from perfectly tight bass to expansive midrange. Vocal timbre is fantastic, too, with a richness and natural quality that simply cranks at high volume -- one listen to Jennifer Hudson belting out "And I'm Telling You I Am Not Going" will give you goosebumps. And, of course, the mix is perfectly balanced -- not a single word is lost to the music, or effects. Surround use, meanwhile, is surprisingly active, with punchy discrete effects that underscore the endless music montages like piercing flashbulbs.
Still, I have trouble getting around the lack of a high-resolution mix. As good as the Dolby sounds, it only makes me wonder how much better it could have been. Paramount needs to change their tune soon -- high-definition should be as much about great audio as it is about great video. The studio should heed the wishes of early adopters, or proceed at its own peril.
'Dreamgirls' hits HD DVD and Blu-ray day-and-date with the standard-def DVD release, which is billed here as the "Showstopper Edition." Paramount has again opted to produce a two-disc set on high-def, rather than smoosh everything on one disc and sacrifice quality, or start dropping extras. To be sure, this is a thorough, elegant package -- everything down to the menus screams "class." Even better, Paramount continues to lead the pack when it comes to producing new supplemental content in full 1080p video -- all of the video extras here look fantastic, making full use of the capabilities of high-definition.
Disc one includes a couple of bonus features. First up are no less than twenty Deleted and Extended Scenes. Given that 'Dreamgirls' is so episodic, it is no surprise there are no dialogue scenes here -- instead, these are mostly musical numbers, with just about every main song in the film presented in its entirety, including "Heavy," "Steppin' to the Bad Side" and two versions of my fave, "One Night Only." Kudos are again due to Paramount, as each of these scenes look terrific, easily matching the picture quality of the main feature. I can't imagine fans of film's music won't be thrilled with these inclusions.
Also included is a music video for Beyonce's "Listen," though unfortunately it's kind of dull. (It's also the only extra on the set to be presented in 480i video only.) Finally, wrapping up the supplements in disc one is a forgettable promo spot for the 'Dreamgirls' soundtrack CD.
The majority of the supplements are on disc two. At first, I thought the lack of an audio commentary was going to be a detriment, but quite frankly, the fantastic documentary "Building the Dream" easily makes up for it. Running a startling 115-minutes -- almost as long as the feature film itself -- it's the kind of doc I long to see on every disc. This one packs it all in -- a nine-part chronicle of the entire production, from conception through execution to release. Every last one of the main cast and crew are present for interviews, including director Bill Condon, producer Laurence Mark, composer Bill Krieger, and cast members Beyonce, Jennifer Hudson, Danny Glover and even the usually press-shy Eddie Murphy. There are tons of great moments here, from nice archival stills of the original Broadway production of 'Dreamgirls,' to footage of the "American Idol"-like open auditions for the role of Effie, which of course ultimately went to Hudson. The only bummer? Original Effie Jennifer Holliday -- who was quite vocal in the press over not being acknowledged enough by the filmmakers behind 'Dreamgirls' -- declined to be interviewed. Ah, well, it's not fatal. "Building the Dream" is a must-see doc, even for casual 'Dreamgirls' fans.
Just the doc alone would have been more than enough to satisfy me, but there are three additional featurettes that focus more directly on key production aspects of the film: "Dream Logic: Film Editing" (4 min.), "Dressing the Dreams: Costume Design" (8 min.) and "Center Stage: Theatrical Lighting" (9 min.). Given their short runtime, these vignettes are really more embellishments than they are stand-alone features. However, it's nice to see these unsung heroes get their due, especially since ' so much of the story and characterizations in Dreamgirls' are told through visual cues.
Next are three sets of Auditions and Screen Tests, featuring Beyonce, Anika Noni Rose and a choreography demo by Fatima Robinson. Beyonce's screen test is particularly interesting, as it was done in full costume, complete with live singing. (Unfortunately, Jennifer Hudson's much-discussed audition is not included, although excerpts do appear in the full-length doc.) These tests run a little over 12 minutes total, and the quality is surprisingly excellent, as (like the other extras on the disc) it is presented in 1080p video.
Rounding out disc two are Previsualization Sequences for seven scenes: "The Talent Show," "Fake Your Way to the Top," "Cadillac Car," "Steppin' to the Bad Side," "I Want You Baby," "Heavy" and "Hard to Say Goodbye." The sequences run nearly 22 minutes total, and are all well-edited assemblages of shot-on-HD footage of stand-in actors and singers, plus storyboards. It's actually rather fascinating, giving a new appreciation for the challenges in constructing coherent narrative scenes around a song, as well as incorporating music video-esque song and dance material.
Alas, there is no Theatrical Trailer included for "Dreamgirls' anywhere on the set. It is the only glaring omission in an otherwise excellent package. (Note that Paramount has also provided optional English SDH, English, French and Spanish subtitles for all of the video-based supplementary material.)
'Dreamgirls' may be an imperfect musical, but it boasts enough dazzling moments that I couldn't help forgive the uneven parts and just bask in the glory of the songs and the performances. This debut high-def release from DreamWorks certainly does the film justice -- it looks smashing, and the extras are superior. My only complaint is that DreamWorks parent Paramount continues to eschew high-resolution audio, and quite frankly 'Dreamgirls' screams out for such treatment. That caveat aside, this is still a superlative release, and an excellent first effort from DreamWorks.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.