Dreamgirls (2006) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Paramount Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Jari Kovalainen (12th May 2007).
The Film

Musicals have a long and respected history in the American film industry, and Broadway theatre has been part of the life in New York City all the way from the 1900s. Often these two unite, when many famous Broadway musicals are translated into feature films. During the 2000s, film musicals again rose in the limelight, thanks to the films like “Moulin Rouge! (2001)”, “Chicago (2002)” and “The Phantom of the Opera (2004)”. A new version of “Hairspray (2007)” is coming. It also seems that the music biographies like “Ray (2004)” and “Walk the Line (2005)” are almost a safe bet for the run of Oscars. Ultimately this new success of films based on music just shows that the love for the musicals hasn´t gone anywhere. Whether it´s “The Broadway Melody (1929)” or “Dreamgirls (2006)”, people have always enjoyed singing and dancing. It´s a part of all of us.

“Dreamgirls” was a hugely successful Broadway musical which ran four years after its opening in 1981. The basic story is the same in the film version (which is also said to be inspired by the famous group “The Supremes”); three young Afro-American singers Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) are trying to break through in early 1960s Detroit. Their talent is noticed by the rising promoter and used-car salesman Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx - e.g. “Miami Vice (2006)” and “Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role” Oscar for “Ray (2004)”), who is offering the first proper job for the girls - as backup singers for the known ladies man and minor R&B star (like he says: “Rough and Black”) James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy - e.g. “48 Hrs. (1982)” and “Beverly Hills Cop (1984)”). Even though Early has a long time manager of his own, Marty Madison (Danny Glover - e.g. “The Color Purple (1985)” and “Lethal Weapon (1987)”), Curtis is also encouraging him to develop a new, fresh pop sound (with a clear “hook” in the chorus) by bringing the gifted songwriter C.C. White (Keith Robinson) on board. At first both Early and Madison are not very interested, but when White plays his catchy “Cadillac Car”-song for the first time, it´s quite clear that Early just had to do it. It´s a hit, but there´s still one big problem - it doesn´t play on the white radio stations, and eventually the song is “stolen” by a lame white pop group. It´s time to bring on the heavy guns. Curtis sells all his cars and - with the money they have - bribes most of the radio stations. The song is soon a hit and Curtis forms his own record label, luring also “Thunder” Early to move in his steps. During the process, the loyal but deeply hurt Madison quits. Next move is to separate Early (who clearly isn´t all that ready to change into a calm pop singer) and the girls, so the group is soon introduced as “The Dreams”. Curtis also wants Deena to sing the leads instead of Effie, which is the first step to real stardom of the group, but also a painful experience for Effie, who is clearly moved to the back-row. Her jealously toward Curtis is also rising, when his eyes seem to be focused on Deena. Eventually a new singer for the group, Michelle Morris (Sharon Leal) also joins in. At some point the story moves to the 1970s and the whole tone of the film changes. “The Dreams” is now a super-group, Curtis is more and more controlling everything and times have changed. But are people happier now? Hardly. What really controls things now is money and power - the old enemies of any successful artist.

Director/writer Bill Condon won the “Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium“ Oscar for “Gods and Monsters (1998)” (which he also directed), wrote “Chicago (2002)” and directed “Kinsey (2004)”. Together with producer Laurence Mark, he persuaded the rights owner, the multi-millionaire David Geffen, to lease the movie rights and the production was under way. “Dreamgirls” was bound to be a big production, since the story has six main characters and around 30 songs. Since the music is very much inspired from the Motown-sound and the artists like James Brown, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross, it was also going to be a challenge actor-wise. All this is eventually both a “gift” and a “curse” for the film version, which undoubtably looks and sounds spectacular - with great performances, but is also a bit hollow, moving too fast in places (even for the over 2 hours runtime) and leaving characters behind. This type of “different act” structure works of course well on the theater stage, but in the feature films you tend to look for the deeper meanings from the characters, a concentrated approach to the story and some solid “bridges” between those acts. In “Dreamgirls”, the music often glues the different sections together (playing almost like a “music video”), but for me some of them were too superficial and to be frank were used a couple of times too often. I feel that the “first act - 1960s” works better than the second one (“1970s”), since the long musical numbers are starting to dominate the second part of the film, almost the sole source for the drama (you have many touching song numbers - can´t deny that, but not that many without the music). In the first part the film is more interesting and the “acting” and “singing” is in good harmony, where the second part is more like a proper “musical” (the film has both stage numbers and also some proper musical moments, where the actors provide their lines via singing). I might be in a minority on this one (and don´t get me wrong, I love good musicals), but perhaps the “actors provide their lines via singing”-moments would´ve been better if used more selectively in the film. I was also a bit surprised that a few great characters (like James “Thunder” Early) also “disappear” somewhere in the middle. This is the loss of the otherwise good story. The director Condon is not brave enough to enter deeper in the “dark territory” of the story (e.g. the cocaine-use of Early or the problems of Effie later on in the story), giving merely short hints and leaving the rest to the imagination of the viewer. There´s drama and typical “rise and fall”-themes, but they´re not as strong elements in the film as they could´ve been. Also the romance-aspects are quite superficial, another thing where e.g. “Moulin Rouge! (2001)” did a better job.

When it comes to the essence of the musicals, the “song and dance”-numbers, they´re pretty much top notch. The energy, the vibe, the lights, the songs and the performers are very good, performing many totally catchy songs (most are from the original Broadway-production, but some are new just for the film). It´s of course partly a matter of taste whether you like the 1960-1970s “Motown-sound”, but considering their importance to the modern soul, R&B and dance music, this type of music should be a kick in the head for many people. I have nothing to complain about the music and musical scenes in the film, and my selected gripes are directed to the structure of the film, which leaves something to be desired - even when this is a musical and the comparison to the other genres is not all that fair. Actors are very much like a “perfect choice” (if there are such things in the first place); Jennifer Hudson lost the “American Idol” in 2004 (don´t ask me why or how, since I don´t follow the series), but ended up winning the “Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role” in her first film role as Effie. Hudson has a strong gospel-like voice and some nascent talent as an actress also. It´s hard to say if she is “Oscar-worthy”, but she's very good nevertheless. She also had probably the “biggest shoes” to fill for the role, which the “original Effie” Jennifer Holliday made famous. Beyoncé Knowles is already a seasoned entertainer, which shows. Perhaps her acting is not quite there yet, but as a singer she is just wonderful. Her role as “Deena” has actually some minor pararrels to her real life. She was the lead singer of the successful “Destiny's Child” and now has the relationship to the wealthy rapper and record label CEO Jay-Z. So you know. Anika Noni Rose is a Tony Award (the highest theater award) winner and her roots are in Broadway. This combination of fresh talent, entertaining experience and Broadway background is a working one. Multitalented Jamie Foxx is also solid (as always), only to be slightly shadowed by Eddie Murphy, which shows that his talents are beyond countless Nutty Professors and Norbits. Instead of being a totally different actor compared to this earlier roles (like many have stated), I feel that he´s only using his comedy skills in the right spots and the more dramatic in the others. The “funny Eddie” is still there, but it´s more subtle - like it should be in the film like this one. As an actor, Murphy probably had to learn how to control himself in “Dreamgirls”, and he didn´t get the usual freedom to basically do what he wants in his pure comedy roles. In any case, another perfect choice for the film and where he earned his first Oscar nomination (“Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role”). Keith Robinson is also gifted (we´ll hear from this guy) and Danny Glover adds the needed experience. Glover just might be one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood. What can I say? A great cast. Cameo appearances from the original Broadway production are Hinton Battle (as “Wayne”) and the “original Lorell” Loretta Devine (playing “Jazz Singer” - also e.g. in “I Am Sam (2001)” and “Crash (2004)”). For the record, “Dreamgirls” won 2 Oscars (along with Hudson, “Best Achievement in Sound Mixing”) and was nominated (along with Murphy) for “Best Achievement in Art Direction”, “Best Achievement in Costume Design”, and three times for “Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song” for the songs “Listen”, “Love You I Do”, and “Patience”.

One thing you often forget when watching musicals is how well they´re connected to the real world and history. “Dreamgirls” is a fictional story (only inspired by “The Supremes” and the likes), but it has some references to the history of music, especially in the African-American community. At the beginning you´ll hear how the “white radio stations” only played white artists and later on the film shows how the biggest venues in the 1960s were only used to the familiar (and white) “crooners” such as Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. Black artists were having a hard time to perform in these places. One scene mentions Sammy Davis, Jr., implying that not “even him” gets to sing in certain venues (Davis, Jr. was one of the first artists to really perform in the “white places”, partly with the help of Sinatra and his “Rat Pack”). In the film the announcer of Miami nightclub is making racial jokes when introducing Early to the stage, which probably was the case in many others back in the day. Activist Martin Luther King, Jr. is also briefly incorporated into the film and the Vietnam War is mentioned. During one scene, “The Detroit Riots” in 1967 have burst into flame. Later on in the 1970s the film introduces cocaine and also the Disco-music, which in some ways killed the old Motown-sound for a while. Even the reference to the “Blaxploitation”-movies is included, when Curtis Taylor, Jr. has a dream to make a new Cleopatra-movie, starring Deena. It seems that Curtis doesn´t want to make just a cheap “exploitation”, but still. Even when most of these references are subtle and in the background, I feel that they take the story that minor step forward and add the certain connection to history. It helps to relate to the characters and understand some of their decisions (since after all, the surrounding world has a different affect on people in a different timeframe - you can´t ignore it).

“Dreamgirls” looks and sounds great and is constantly “alive”, but it´s not deep enough to be really a masterpiece. It doesn´t touch you like e.g. “Moulin Rouge! (2001)” and it can be a bit repetitive even. In the end the amount of music can wear you down, at least a bit. Since the film is quite closely based to the original Broadway musical (with quite famous musical numbers), I know that the filmmakers wanted to keep the similar structure and the spirit, but I can help but think about the alternate route, where you just have the song numbers at the stage (like e.g. “Walk the Line (2005)”) and outside that would be just pure acting (without singing). Then again, I guess we wouldn´t call it a “musical” if that would be the case.

Video

“Dreamgirls” is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen (1080p 24fps) and is using MPEG-2 compression (note, that the HD DVD-release is using “VC-1”). Like the characters and the stages in the film, that transfer is “glowing” with them, boosting deep colours, bold black levels, solid shadow details and “edgy” contrasts (with some nice film grain). Depending on the scene and the era (the 1960s Detroit has a bit more of a grittier look, while in the 1970s the dark alleys and shady dressing rooms are mostly gone due to the success and money), you have red, blue, yellow - you name it, tones and the screen is constantly full of different shades of colours. Detail level is high and the disc is good reference material for any home theatre (there is some grain, though). Edge enhancement is not a problem. Great job. Let´s hope that the studios release more HD-titles in 2-disc editions (and “BD-50”-discs), where you have more room on the transfer and audio. In “Dreamgirls” the bitrate is where it should be in HD-releases, near to 30 Mbps (give or take).

The film is using “BD-50”-discs (both) and there are 25 chapters. The film runs 130:12 minutes. Note, that the packaging doesn´t list the region code, but as usually with “Paramount”, it should be “Region All”.

Review equipment: Sony Bravia KDL-40W2000 LCD (1080p) + Playstation 3, via HDMI cable.

Audio

The film includes English Dolby Digital 5.1 (at 640 Kbps), along with French Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 (both at 640 Kbps). Optional English, English HoH, French and Spanish subtitles are included. As with many other HD fans, I´m a bit disappointed that Blu-ray-release has English 5.1-track “only” at 640 Kbps, while the HD DVD-release from the same studio is at 1.5 Mbps (1536 Kbps). I don´t fully see the logic on this one, but it scares me to think that the reason is the (somewhat) efficient “VC-1”-codec, which would then give more room to increase the audio bitrate? So far I haven´t been convinced that “VC-1” clearly improves the transfer just like that (even when some people bluntly claim), but perhaps one of its strength is to help improve the audio (by providing more room on the disc). Remember, just speculating here, so don´t quote me.

When it comes to the track itself, I can´t really complain. The track is crystal clear and since this is a musical after all, the music and singing is filling every speaker. The audio is dynamic - even aggressive if it needs to be and virtually without any flaws. Since the film is no “action”, you don´t have any car crashes or shoot-outs, but for the music lovers this must be a true joy to hear; a well-balanced, modern 5.1-mix. Next time, “Paramount”, perhaps a proper lossless “DTS-HD Master” or uncompressed “PCM”-track? This film would´ve deserve it.

Extras

2-disc “Dreamgirls - Showstopper Edition” is the first Blu-ray -release by “DreamWorks Home Entertainment” distributed by its new parent company “Paramount Pictures”. All extras from the SD DVD are included (except for some reason the “Photo galleries”), but there´s no “HD exclusive”-extras. HD DVD-release has the same extras. The good news is that all the extras (except where noted) also include English, English HoH, French, and Spanish subtitles and many are presented in HD (in 1080p or 1080i).

Disc 1

-12 Extended and Alternate Scenes run 36:09 minutes if you use “Play all”-option and are presented in 1080p HD. These are mostly extended and “uncut” musical sequences, but there´s e.g. the “song version” of “Effie, Sing my Song” (the “dialogue version” was used in the film) - to where the text “including a Jennifer Hudson performance not seen in the theaters” on the back cover refers and “Steppin' to the Bad Side” has also some dialogue done in “singing” before the actual song kicks in. Scenes are:
*I'm Lookin’ for Something (2:24 min)
*Goin' Downtown (1:57 min)
*Takin' the Long Way Home (2:26 min)
*Fake Your Way to the Top (6:37 min)
*Steppin' to the Bad Side (7:27 min)
*Heavy (1:14 min)
*I'm Somebody (0:38 sec)
*I am Changing (4:03 min)
*Perfect World (1:29 min)
*Effie, Sing my Song (1:28 min)
*One Night Only (2:56 min)
*One Night Only (Disco Version) (3:23 min)

-Beyoncé Knowles: “Listen” Music video runs 3:49 minutes and is one of the extras on the disc that is in 480p standard definition. There are no subtitles.

-“Dreamgirls soundtrack CD" promo runs 1:03 minutes and is also in 480p standard definition.

-“Previews”-section has one bonus trailer (run also before the “Main menu”, but can be skipped): “Paramount Blu-ray promo” (1:20 min) in 1080p.

Disc 2

-“Building the Dream” -documentary runs a massive 114:58 minutes if you use “Play All”-option. You can also watch the different sections one at a time, and all are presented in 1080i HD. Here´s the list of the cast & crew that are being interviewed and as you can see, pretty much everybody is involved; director/writer Bill Condon, songwriter (soundtrack) Henry Krieger, actors Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover, Jennifer Hudson, Anika Noni Rose, Keith Robinson, Sharon Leal, Hinton Battle and Loretta Devine, producer Laurence Mark, executive producer/unit production manager Patricia Whitcher, director of photography Tobias A. Schliessler (as Tobias Schliessler), casting director Debra Zane, production designer John Myhre, choreographer Fatima Robinson (also one of the “Stepp Sisters” in the film), associate choreographer Joey Pizzi, co-choreographer Aakomon "AJ" Jones (also as “Little Albert” in the film), assistant choreographer Eboni Y. Nichols (also one of the “Stepp Sisters” in the film), music arranger/supervisor/soundtrack producer Matthew Rush Sullivan, music supervisor Randy Spendlove, music producers (“The Underdogs”) Damon Thomas & Harvey Mason Jr., first assistant director Richard Graves, costume designer Sharen Davis, theatrical lighting designers Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer, hair stylist department head Camille Friend, makeup department head Shutchai Tym Buacharern (as Tym Shutchai Buacharern), and visual effects supervisor Gray Marshall. Whoo-ah.

Documentary is divided into the following sections:
*On Broadway (5:10 min):
This section tells the history of the original Broadway musical (which cost 3,5 million $ at the time).
*The Dream is Alive (5:34 min):
This tells about the early development of the film version and how the deal was made with the rights owner David Geffen. Director Condon tells how “Chicago (2002)” (where he was nominated for “Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay” Oscar) opened doors for him and he also talks about the basic structure of “Dreamgirls” story wise (different “acts” etc).
*I’m Lookin’ for Something (12:55 min):
Here we hear about the important casting. Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy apparently were the “first choices” for their roles, but Murphy took some time to think about it before saying “yes” (he thought it was a risk). Beyoncé Knowles contacted the producers herself and had to audition and there were “open calls” for both roles of Lorrell and Effie. Jennifer Hudson was actually chosen from 700 other applicants and she had to do 3 screen tests for the role. There´s also brief footage from “American Idol”.
*Feel So Real (4:39 min):
This focuses on the pre-production, which took almost a year. We also hear about the production design and e.g. how they used small models to built the different stages.
*You Better Move, Move… (9:00 min):
Choreography is obviously the essential part of any musical and it´s interesting to hear how Beyoncé was “ready” for her role and a quick learner, while Jennifer Hudson had to learn to dance. You´ll see some rehearsal footage and how the choreography also affects the cinematography.
*The Sound of Tomorrow (10:53 min):
This one is about the soundtrack and the many songs that you´ll hear in the film. We see the music producers - “The Underdogs” at the studio, working with lead actors (who sang their own songs). All songs were first recorded in the studio, some many months before the actual shooting period. You´ll see Foxx and Murphy goofing at the studio (Murphy states that he “put a couple of s*itty records out in the old days”, referring to the music he recorded mainly in the 1980s).
*Gonna Take a Mean Ride: A Side (28:47 min):
This is the “production diary” of the actual production, covering roughly the first 30 days of shooting. Plenty is included here and you´ll see many locations (the film was shot 90% on location and 10% in the actual studio) and behind-the-scenes material. You´ll see how they created the 1960s Detroit and 1970s California and also the look of the characters is discussed (e.g. James “Thunder” Early was a hybrid of several real life singers and he was created with the fact in mind that Murphy really wasn´t a dancer). One tidbit also is that actress Anika Noni Rose was the only one who actually sang live her own scenes (others mainly used the pre-recorded soundtrack material).
*Gonna Take a Mean Ride: B Side (29:55 min):
The second part covers the rest of the 30 days of shooting. We hear about the stage lighting and how it has to be a bit different when shooting with film compared to a live show (the human eye can take the harsh contrasts etc, but in film the lighting needs to be balanced more). Cinematographer Schliessler is honest and gives all the credit to the theatrical lighting designers, admitting that his job is mainly to fine tune everything for the shoot. We also hear about the make-up of the actors and something about the special effects. An interesting tidbit is that the song “Effie, Sing My Song” was not included in the film (for every song outside the stage numbers, both “dialogue version” and “song version” was filmed) and the normal “dialogue version” of the corresponding scene was chosen for the final version.
*One Night Only (8:01 min):
Documentary ends in the New York premiere of the film, of course in Broadway. Lots of smiling faces, flashing lights and some closing comments from the cast & crew.

-“Dream Logic: Film Editing” -featurette runs 4:08 minutes (presented in 1080i HD), focusing on the post-production with editor Virginia Katz and first assistant editor Ian Slater. These examples probably will put things in perspective; there was over a million feet of film and one 2,5 minutes sequence sometimes had over 5 hours of material. You´ll also learn, that the first preview-version was approx. 15 minute longer, including even more music (the director realised that this was too much).

-“Dressing the Dreams: Costume Design” -featurette runs 8:22 minutes, also in 1080i HD. In this one, costume designer Sharen Davis is giving a quick look of the different costumes in different scenes.

-“Center Stage: Theatrical Lighting” -featurette runs 8:44 minutes - again in 1080i HD. Top theatrical lighting designers Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer, along with director/writer Bill Condon tell about the scenes which required theatrical lighting. Comparing to normal lighting in films, the theatrical lights are constantly changing and there are “light cues”, which have to come exactly at the right time during the scene, handled by the special “director” (apparently Eisenhauer). They also talk about the themes and motives behind the different lighting schemes and how they wanted to be true to the period that the film is following (with some selected “liberties”). Lights are simpler in the beginning, becoming more sophisticated when the film progress.

-Auditions and Screen Tests include the following three segments:
*Dreamgirls - Beyoncé Knowles screen test (2:24 minutes - in 1080i HD)
*Ain't No Party - Anika Noni Rose audition (2:10 minutes - in 480p Standard Definition)
-*Steppin' to the Bad Side - Fatima Robinson choreography audition (6:21 minutes - in 480p Standard Definition)

-Previsualization Sequences includes 7 scenes and are all in 480p Standard Definition. These are a combination of rehearsal footage (proper actors from the film are not included) and storyboards, creating unique, alternate scenes from the film (and help the director to visualize the scenes even before they´re filmed). The music is present:
*The Talent Show (9:35 min)
*Fake Your Way to the Top (6:59 min)
*Cadillac Car (3:01 min)
*Steppin' to the Bad Side (8:26 min)
*I want You Baby (2:47 min)
*Heavy (1:47 min)
*Hard to Say Goodbye (4:30 min)

Packaged in a standard Blu-ray case (housing 2 discs).

Overall

Very good and compelling, but not a perfect musical - it just didn´t touch me deep enough. Blu-ray-release could´ve been near perfect; only gripes come from the audio format, which is too basic for the kick-ass musical production like this one. “Lossless” or “uncompressed” should be the no-brainer.

For more info, please visit the homepage of Paramount Home Entertainment.

The Film: Video: Audio: Extras: Overall:

 


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