Dreamgirls (Showstopper Edition) Blu-ray Review

The razzle-dazzle Paramount production Dreamgirls garnered several Oscar nominations and even scored a Best Actress win for ex-American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson (and disappointing loss for Eddie Murphy.) That positive momentum no doubt influenced Paramount Home Entertainment to release only their second two-disc HD DVD and Blu-ray sets for a new theatrical film after last October’s M:i:III hit a presentation home run with stunning visuals and HD extras, although failed to overall wow critics in the overall film department. Likewise, Dreamgirls: The Showstopper Edition appears cut from a similar high-def cloth; shimmering and sparkling in 1080p like few live-action films have before, but suffering from a narrative that peters out long before the credits roll.

Dreamgirls chronicles a young soulful trio of Detroit singers from their quest for a break in the industry to their final star-studded performance in front of thousands. The Dreams is led by powerfully voiced Effie (Jennifer Hudson), who can sing up a storm but doesn’t fit the physical template for a diva, as well as physically endowed Deena (Beyoncé Knowles) and young naïve Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose). Early on, they are taken under the wing of a slick talking car salesman-turned-record producer, Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx), who manages a hot soul act, James Early (Eddie Murphy). Curtis realizes in order for the girls to have a shot to compete with the more popular and accepted “white” acts and play in their big money venues, he’ll have to put looks in front of sound. But by thrusting sexy Deena into the spotlight and the group into the stratosphere, Effie’s dreams are slowly crushed until she’s left with little more than a flesh-and-blood reminder of her days singing with the Dreams, and Deena must eventually come to terms with the hurt her career has caused her former friend.

The story of Dreamgirls is based upon the Broadway play that ran a quarter century ago, as well as the early years of the Supremes. Diana Ross supplanted Florence Ballard in that fabled group, though the intricate similarities to the Effie and Deena story continue to drag out as controversial, depending on who associated with the Supremes is telling the story. The Broadway influence, aside from the film’s name, weighs heavily in a number of sequences beginning about halfway through when the characters break out in song in lieu of conversation, ala Chicago. Since all the principle actors and actresses have singing experience, including Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx, the musical numbers never jeopardize a character’s credibility ” though they do drag on far longer than welcomed.

Above all else, Dreamgirls is a fabulous nod to the golden years of Motown and the competitive nature of the music business. Details like a cameo appearance by a Jackson Five-inspired group and a James Early song being pathetically re-recorded by a “white” band to great success speak volumes about the time period. Motown aficionados will surely find discrepancies to nitpick, but as a whole, Dreamgirls is a wonderful creation of a bygone musical era with songs that linger in the brain long afterwards.

Unfortunately, these nuggets of historical knowledge cannot overcome the tedious and excessively long script. The main and secondary characters are naturally chatty, which is fine, but there’s only so much character building needed before the audience has a good feel for what their motivations are. Shaving 20 to 30 minutes off would have worked wonders in moving the story along and keeping the focus on the group instead of doling out extra scenes to secondary characters like James Early, despite how charismatic Eddie Murphy played him. In this current theatrical cut, Dreamgirls curtain call can’t come soon enough. Which is a shame, considering the Dreams” story is engaging and interesting when it’s allowed to be.

The Blu-ray Disc version of Dreamgirls is presented in 1080p MPEG-2 encoded video, unlike the HD DVD version which was encoded in the VC-1 codec. Why Paramount chose to use dueling compression codecs for the same film is anyone’s guess, but the end result is an equally dazzling presentation on both high definition formats. Colorful costumes and elaborate lighting provide perfect contrast with often dark stages; all enhanced more with a successful three-dimensional high definition visual effect. In particular, the James Early sets and costumes are so over-the-top with color that I can’t think of any previously released high-def disc that could rival them. Simply put, this video presentation is as good as live action high definition gets, folks.

To date, Paramount has been last in the race to offer lossless audio options on their HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc titles. Unfortunately Dreamgirls is the latest example of passing up the opportunity to nail home the perfect all-around a/v presentation. That’s not to say the Dolby Digital 5.1 lossy mix is a pushover by any stretch of the imagination. The many musical numbers in Dreamgirls should satisfy even discerning audiophiles with clearly defined percussion, bass, and vocals booming from the many catchy tunes. Surround channels are aptly used to round out the concert experience with ambient crowd noise and cheers, capping a well-executed mix. At the end of the day it is hard not to think about what could have been, and should have been, with the extra oomph lossless audio provides.

This Dreamgirls two-disc “Showstopper” edition offers an impressive array of extra features ” all in HD ” spread across both discs. Featured on the first disc are over a half-hour of Extended and Deleted Scenes, a scary thought considering the film’s current runtime. At the same time, there are a couple musical performances embedded here that, while I’m glad didn’t make it into the film, are fun to watch on their own. Also included are a Beyoncé Knowles Music Video and a short Soundtrack Promo.

Disc two ups the extras ante a couple notches by first offering up the impressive nine-part documentary Building the Dream, which thankfully includes a play-all option. As the name suggests, this nearly two-hour long journey into the making of Dreamgirls focuses on the process of putting together the pieces for the film before cameras every rolled; from the film’s inspiration to the trials and tribulations of finding the right actor or actress for each key role. If all films were given a documentary as in-depth as this, more viewers would be inclined to explore extras to begin with.

The remaining featurettes support the documentary and offer a more “making-of” glimpse into the Dreamgirls production. Dream Logic: Film Editing is a fascinating look into editing a film. Unlike typical editing pieces, this dives straight into the Avid system and even offers an almost tutorial-like look at what’s required in order to turns hours upon hours of footage into a film. Dressing the Dreams shows the decision-making process behind making sure all the Dreams wore the perfect outfit, while Center Stage discusses the filmmakers” goals to achieve a Broadway look from a soundstage through complicated theatrical lighting rigs.

Even Beyoncé Knowles had to sit through a screen test before winning the part of Deena, which can be seen alongside that of Anika Noni Rose in Auditions & Screen Tests. The third test in this featurette includes an intense six-minute audition by a group of dancers set to Fatima Robinson’s choreography and the funky beats of Stepping to the Bad Side. This is worth an extra viewing or two just to appreciate the elaborate dance moves. Rounding out the extras are seven Pre-visualization Sequences spanning over a half-hour.

Dreamgirls will always be a controversial film for its similarities to the story of The Supremes, Jennifer Hudson’s Oscar win for a role in which she mostly sang, Eddie Murphy’s Oscar snub, and its Best Picture Oscar nomination ” the latter of which I’m not entirely convinced it deserved. What can’t and won’t ever be controversial is how visually compelling this film is on both HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc. Even mediocre films will be impossible to pass up if Paramount can get around to offering lossless audio on all their loaded new theatrical two-disc editions.

– Dan Bradley

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