For a movie about singing, Dreamgirls is surprisingly shy about also being a musical. Following the highs and lows of a fictional singing trio modeled on The Supremes, the movie spends almost an hour building up steam with musical numbers that are justified by audiences and nearby pianos before the training wheels finally come off. Newcomer Jennifer Hudson does the honors, belting out the first a cappella notes -- "What about me?" -- intended as communication, not entertainment. Hudson plays Effie White, instantly recognizable to us as the singing engine behind her group, The Dreams, even before she sings those notes. Her moderately plus-sized figure would likely preclude her from being part of the group otherwise. The story of Effie and The Dreams will be set in motion when a used-car salesman of a manager, in the form of Jamie Foxx, intrudes on the unsuccessful threesome and begins pouring honey into the ear of the group's honey, Deena, played by Beyonce Knowles. He wants to make Deena a star. If the other Dreams come along for the ride, great.
Dreamgirls is a 'rise and fall' story almost as old as music itself, but it gets a pass for dusting off the musical genre with some inspired performances, including the centerpiece, in which poor Effie is rounded on and attacked for not bowing down and stepping aside in favor of the prettier Deena. She fights back with "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" a wail in the key of pissed-off, as raw and throaty as its title demands. It's so emotional that it eventually descends into some unfortunate American Idol-style theatrics, but since the house is already flattened by that point, it hardly matters. If Hudson has the ability to funnel the closed-fist passion she brings to this role into serious dramatic fare, then we have a new star. Dreamgirls is not the role that will test her, though. It's too much of a comfort zone, and the film itself is not brave. If it really wanted to stun us into silence with its originality, it would have Danny Glover bust out a tune or two.