If you've ever pondered what it might have been like to be one of the Supremes, Dreamgirls offers a hypothetical answer. Its storyline (adapted from the Tony Award-winning 1981 Broadway musical of the same name) is purely fictional. Nevertheless, this tale of three young singers from Detroit deliberately mirrors many aspects of the Supremes' rise to superstardom.
It all begins at a Motor City talent show where a trio of late-teen girls known as the Dreamettes captures the attention of one Curtis Taylor Jr., a car salesman by day who aspires to music production by night. Taylor recognizes the girls' obvious talent, especially that of their feisty, no-nonsense leader, Effie White. Under Taylor's mentorship, Effie and fellow singers Deena Jones and Lorrell Robinson are soon backing up R&B legend James "Thunder" Early while continuing to work on their own songs (written by Effie's brother, C.C.).
Taylor is ruthlessly determined to see his girls succeed. And he'll sacrifice anything and everything (or everyone) necessary to get to the top—including Effie. Though she has the strongest lungs, Effie lacks Deena's and Lorrell's looks. So Taylor maneuvers her offstage and moves the beautiful Deena into the spotlight, where she leads a new group known as the Dreams.
As Deena and the Dreams' star skyrockets into the stratosphere in the years that follow, Effie struggles to make sense of her own cruelly shattered dreams while she raises her young daughter, Magic. But Deena and Lorrell discover that superstardom comes with its own price to pay as they struggle to live under Taylor's increasingly tyrannical rule. Along the way, these young women meet a host of characters who obviously parallel real-life Motown Records stars from the '60s and '70s—and endure a season of tumultuous societal and racial upheaval as well.
Unjustly kicked out of the group she once led, Effie refuses to go quietly into the night. She confronts Taylor directly, asking, "Am I ugly to you, Curtis?" and insisting, "I've got the voice." She's poor and struggling once she returns to Detroit, but she continues to believe in herself and knows that she still has something to offer. Eventually, C.C. tries to make things right by writing a song especially for Effie after having sided with Taylor and the Dreams most of the film.
Jimmy Early's manager, Marty Madison, exhibits character and integrity on several occasions. When Early replaces Marty with Taylor, Marty tells him, "I love you Jimmy, but you can't have it all." And when Effie's determination to go it alone lapses into prideful stubbornness, Marty convinces her that she needs his assistance and helps her get a second chance. Whatever his other (many) shortcomings may be, Taylor helps the Dreamettes overcome the institutionalized racism they encounter.
Several songs that characters sing express their deepest feelings and have positive themes. One track advises a devastated Effie, "Patience, little sister/Patience, if you want to see a brighter day." Effie herself exhibits hope and humility when she croons, "I am changing/I'll be better than I am/I'm hoping to work it out/And I know that I can/I need you/I need a hand." Another singer recognizes the importance of family (even if the film rarely does), saying, "If you get afraid, I'll be there/We are family/More than you and I/... We are growing free."
Talking to Deena's mother, Taylor says of his star singer, "She has quality." Deena's mom is leery of Taylor's motives, and she takes issue with the way he talks about her daughter, saying, "You make her sound like a product." A short TV clip pictures Martin Luther King Jr. talking about the need for racial equality.
Arguably too little and too late, a bittersweet, sentimental ending perhaps indicates that each main character (with the exception of Taylor) has realized that friendship and loyalty are more important than fame and fortune.
At the beginning of their singing careers, the three stars are depicted as young and virginal—and at least temporarily, they value that purity. After the talent show, Effie confronts a man who is inappropriately touching the backside of one of the other girls. Likewise, Lorrell resists Early's adulterous sexual advances at first, saying, "You're a married man, aren't you? ... Then get your married hands off." (Early, who has a well-earned reputation as a cheating womanizer, mumbles to himself that it will take a couple weeks to get what he wants from Lorrell.)
An older woman briefly joins the girls on the tour bus to act as their chaperone. One by one, however, these young women collapse morally. After turning 18, Lorrell enthusiastically gives in to Early's incessant pursuit. A brief scene of the two in bed together pictures Early with his bare back to the camera mostly shielding Lorrell from view. After the encounter, Lorrell brags, "I'm a woman now!" (She serves as his mistress for eight years.)
Effie "encourages" Deena to "let yourself go just once." And she sleeps with Taylor. (They're also shown kissing twice.) Effie insists, "It's not wrong if you love somebody." [Spoiler Warning] Effie never tells Taylor that their sexual activity results in a child.
After dismissing Effie, Taylor moves on to Deena, his real interest all along. Again, it's implied that the two are lovers before they get married (Effie angrily tells Deena that everyone knows they're sleeping together, then asks, "How much did you have to put out to get in?").
Given such eroded sexual mores, it's not surprising that the Dreamettes' song "Dreamgirls" brags, "Dreamgirls will make love to you." And many of the musical's scenes include sensual dancing where the girls shake their backsides and breasts; a similar number of scenes include outfits revealing lots of cleavage. Early drops his pants in an ill-advised stunt during a concert. (He's wearing boxers underneath.)
As the film progresses through the '70s, the dancing gets more sexualized. (A group of men in sleeveless shirts and leather pants join Deena for a particularly sensual number.) Her exploding career means she's constantly in the camera's eye, and that eye stares at her bare back and breasts (which she covers with her arms). When Deena decides to seek out a deliberately edgy movie role, the director talks about how her character would need to "go down on a truck driver."
During the Detroit riots of 1968, people smash windshields, shoot guns and set fire to buildings. Several times in moments of frustration, Taylor grabs various characters roughly.
Crude or Profane Language
Characters utter the s-word 20-plus times and the f-word once. One misuses God's name and another Jesus'. About half-a-dozen other milder profanities jiggle their way to the surface as well.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Numerous scenes depict almost everybody drinking (both beer and hard liquor) and/or smoking. Early is an alcoholic whose addiction eventually leads to drugs. We watch as he cuts cocaine into rows with a razor. Later he unwraps a small package containing a drug (which we don't see) and rolls up his sleeve, implying that he's about to inject it. Neither C.C. nor Lorrell will stay in the room with him as he shoots up, but neither do they try to stop him—essentially enabling his dependency. Finally, we learn that a character has died from a heroin overdose that has taken place offscreen.
Other Negative Elements
Taylor unduly pressures the Dreamettes to join Early on the road. (One of the girls apparently leaves town without her parents' permission.) He takes advantage of Effie's infatuation with him, then carelessly discards her. And after he and Deena get married, there's little in her life that escapes his notice and purview. When she threatens to leave him at one point, he fires back, "Your voice has no personality and no depth." And though she wants to have a child, he refuses to consider it. [Spoiler Warning] Taylor's treatment of Deena is so bad that it's hard not to respond to her eventual decision to leave him as a moral victory.
Neither is Taylor above using illegal and unethical methods to promote the Dreamettes and the Dreams. To get their first hit on the radio, he pays DJs to play it. Later, we learn that he relied on this payola promotional method for more than a decade. We also watch as Taylor gambles and bets on horses and on boxing matches. He takes a mob loan to finance a movie.
When C.C. tries to help Effie make a comeback, Taylor deliberately squelches it. And he manipulates Early to leave his longtime manager despite Marty's (accurate) contention that Taylor is a selfish snake. Taylor then dictates Early's song choices, even though the singer longs to explore different musical styles and write message songs addressing the social issues of the day. Taylor's dominance of Early likely contributes to his chemical dependencies, yet Taylor refuses to acknowledge how his behavior is negatively affecting the singer.
Before it even arrived in theaters, there was already Oscar buzz swirling around Dreamgirls. On the surface, it's not hard to see why. The film's all-star cast turns in powerful, emotional performances. Eddie Murphy's portrayal of James "Thunder" Early spookily echoes real-life singers James Brown and Marvin Gaye. And though former American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson may not have the name recognition of Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles or Danny Glover, her gritty, fiery performance as Effie easily steals the show.
Big, polished and highly produced as it may be, however, Dreamgirls is badly let down by its lack of a solid moral core. The modicum of sexual discretion that Lorrell, Effie and Deena initially exhibit evaporates far too quickly in the intense, narcissistic world in which they live. Granting the fact that none of them are truly happy, the film never comments directly on whether or not it's their moral choices that are responsible.
In a world where sexual promiscuity is rampant culturally, it's always disappointing to see yet another movie that confirms such choices as status quo. That message, combined with a lot of profanity, drinking and drug use, kick the footlights out from under the feel-good vibe this bombastic musical desperately wants us to experience. Its headlong dive into the middle of a selfish, superficial culture left me feeling empty, not dreamy.