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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that tweens and teens who like musicals, American Idol, and Beyoncé will be eager to see this much-hyped Broadway adaptation. Several scenes of drug abuse are used to symbolically link excessiveness, addiction, and depression in "show business." Images include snorting lines of cocaine and smoking marijuana. Characters also drink heavily (often to drunkenness and sometimes hidden from others), smoke cigarettes, argue loudly, and engage in a fight or two. Some relatively mild -- but quite colorful -- language (mostly, several uses of "s--t" and "hell").
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What's the story?
Directed by Bill Condon, who wrote the screenplay for Chicago, Dreamgirls is based on the same-named Broadway musical that opened in 1981 and famously borrowed from the real-life saga of Diana Ross and the Supremes (here the group is called the Dreamettes, then the Dreams). Naïve young women are manipulated by scheming, ambitious men, and only late in their lives realize that their original friendship is most important. Embracing the music of its moment, from Motown to pop to disco, Dreamgirls also deals with the racism that helps shape the girls' careers. As they strive to break through to mainstream (white) audiences, they also negotiate with their own identities. The film opens at a 1962 Detroit talent contest, where the Dreamettes -- Deena (Knowles), Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose), and lead singer Effie (Hudson) -- get what seems like a once-in-a-lifetime chance to sing back-up for the already fading, James Brown-like R&B star James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy). His wily manager, Curtis (Jamie Foxx, playing a character inspired by Motown Records founder Berry Gordy), sees in the girl group the chance to cross over. Though Curtis is romancing Effie and appreciates her phenomenal talent, he also believes that the group will be more saleable if fronted by Deena, who's more "conventionally" beautiful (again, closer to a white standard), as well as less demanding and more willing to compromise in order to achieve her "dream" of stardom. The switch not only angers James (who turns to drugs), but also upsets the women's longstanding dynamic.
Is it any good?
DREAMGIRLS is a big, boomy musical, energetic and well-crafted. But it has something else on its mind as well. The latest in a series of Broadway shows translated to the big screen just in time for Oscar nominations, it benefits from casting actual singers: Both Beyoncé Knowles and erstwhile American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson are brilliant, whether belting songs, fine-timing comedy, or conveying heartbreak.
While its plot is never surprising, Dreamgirls highlights the cost of ambition within an industry in which race and gender shape opportunities and expectations for artists, producers, and consumers. Effie's insistent "blackness" limits her commercial appeal, and her story, reeling from joy to tragedy to triumph, exposes how such limits are a function of both blatant and subtle forms of racism. Whether peole navigate, internalize, or confront it, they're always affected by it in some way. When, for instance, Effie learns that Curtis is not only dropping her from the group but has also been sleeping with Deena, her stunning number, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" (with the poignant lyric, "You're gonna love me"), speaks directly to the film's most compelling theme: that broader U.S. culture and politics have long exploited, feared, and loved black culture and politics. In this potent, gorgeous, and devastating moment, Effie declares her need and her defiance. Here, the movie shows how history and art pervade our present.
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