A few years ago, the director Rob Marshall came up with a way to rattle the disbelief out of an antiquated movie genre where people suddenly break into song: In his filming of Chicago, he turned the musical numbers into figments of its characters' imaginations.
For a while in Dreamgirls, which takes place in the world of show business, writer/director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) tries something a little like that with the songs that don't take place on stage. He needn't have bothered. Dreamgirls, based on the Broadway hit by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen, works just fine as an old-fashioned movie musical, despite its heady project: to quickly retell the history of the popularization of black music, from the dawn of Motown (a word never uttered in the movie) through the disco daze, using ersatz versions of the real stars.
And so we have James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy), who dresses in an orange glitter jacket, does his hair up in a pompadour, and falls to the floor in exhaustion after a particularly energetic song. Is this the hardest-working man in show business, or what? Murphy is electrifying in Dreamgirls, making a star re-turn in a movie that's barely even marginally about his character.
It's actually about The Dreams, a trio of black girls who sing like angels on Cloud 9. When we see them on stage for the first time, they do more than jiggle and jive: These girls can shake it! But it's the early 1960s, and nobody has seen anything like this yet. So they're relegated to singing back-up for Early, and doing what they're told by their managers, one an honorable older gentleman (Danny Glover) and the other (Jamie Foxx) an ambitious young car salesman with musical connections and the savvy to take The Dreams, duly compromised, to the top. Along the way, '60s activism and civil rights drop in, although not for long, and with no consequence. (This isn't Burn, Baby, Burn: The Musical).
The plot of Dreamgirls less than doesn't matter, as don't the characters' tribulations, which naturally involve letdowns and breakups. (Even bad guys have happy endings in a dream.) So all we can do is enjoy the music, which includes plenty of pop and R&B along with its Motown soul. Beyoncé Knowles sings beautifully as Deena, chosen to be the group's lead because her lighter voice (like her fairer skin) is less threatening to white audience. The group's youngster, Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose), is lovely and capricious. And Loretta Divine, who played Lorrell in the 1981 Broadway original, makes a singing cameo at the end.
But the standing ovation in Dreamgirls goes to Jennifer Hudson as the volatile Effie, who won't take no shit from nobody: At the end of Act I, when the major players come to blows in a glorious piece of Motown operetta, Hudson performs the most thrilling power ballad I can remember seeing on film. If Catherine Zeta-Whatshername could win an Oscar for Chicago, then Hudson deserves the whole damned Academy.
Starts Mon., Dec. 25.