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Dreamgirls (Blu-ray)

Between "message" pictures, a little sunshine, and a long-frustrated bandwagon for director Martin Scorsese, Dreamgirls was not nominated this year for a Best Picture Oscar. But it was, nevertheless, one of the best movies of 2006, and one of the most highly anticipated video releases of 2007. The Blu-ray discs are reviewed here. An HD DVD version, with identical contents, is also available, as well as two standard definition DVD sets.

The film is based on the 1982 Broadway musical of the same name. It took a minor renaissance of the movie musical, thanks largely to Chicago's box office and Oscar successes, to bring it to the screen.

The plot of Dreamgirls is (though not "officially") based loosely on the story of the singing group The Supremes and their rise, starting in the mid-1960s, to the top of the pop charts. Like the Supremes, the group in the movie, The Dreams, becomes the premier female pop singing sensation of their era. But the road is rocky. Wrenching changes alter the makeup of the group, shatter friendships, and change lives. History also intrudes, though it remains at the edges of the story.

This description makes Dreamgirls sound like nearly any other biopic, but it's all so skillfully tied together that you don't notice the seams. The production values are often spectacular, and the infectious music pulls you in. The plot sags a bit in the middle, but the first-rate cast holds it together. Kudos in particular to Eddie Murphy as Jimmy "Thunder" Early, a womanizing blues singer. The Dreams get their first break singing backup for Early on tour, but before long, in a twist reminiscent of A Star is Born, they eclipse him. It's Murphy's best screen roll ever, and he pulled in an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor (though he didn't win).

Beyoncé Knowles gets top billing here as the female lead (in the "Diana Ross" role) but she's completely overshadowed by newcomer Jennifer Hudson playing Effie White, the Dreams first lead singer. Effie is sassy, outspoken, and yes, a bit egotistical, but thanks to Hudson's performance we love her and feel for her when things don't go her way.

The filmmakers were astute in casting Hudson, who was an eighth place finisher on American Idol a few years back. The monster ratings of that television show inevitably added a curiosity factor to the film's box office. But her performance turned out to be a lot more than stunt-casting. Hudson has only has a couple of big solo numbers, but she nails them both, particularly her big, heartbreaking showstopper, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." She also won a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and received, by far, the loudest applause in the film's curtain-call end credits when I saw it at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood.

In an ironic twist on real life, Hudson's character remarks early in the film, "singin' backup is a trap." As it turns out, one leading contender on this year's Idol spent years doing backup vocals. She is, as it turns out, a spectacular solo singer.

The video on this Blu-ray transfer is excellent, though a hair less sharp than the best I've seen. There is a softness and lack of detail in many medium and long shots, and blacks are often a little crushed. I was hoping that this transfer would match the crisp, pristine picture quality I saw in that digital projection presentation at the Cinerama Dome —screen size aside, of course—but it doesn't quite come up to that level (though the blacks are deeper on my home system). Nevertheless, I'm not complaining and don't think you will, either.

It's a bit disappointing that Paramount and Dreamworks didn't see fit to give us more than a conventional Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack for this release. I guess a high-resolution audio track will have to wait for some future, re-mastered version. But that's a long way off. But I have no serious complaints about the sound on this release, and didn't notice it one way or the other as I became increasingly engrossed in the film. This is certainly a solid, substantial audio transfer. It never calls negative attention to itself, and offers plenty of great material to show off your system when you want to give your guests a break from the usual demo scenes of explosions, car crashes, and gunfire.

The set is also loaded with special features, most of them in high definition. In fact, some of the special features are sharper looking than the film itself! Between the two discs you get 12 extended musical numbers, a Beyoncé music video, a full length "Making of" feature, and more.

The extras will keep you busy for a while, but it's the film itself that's the main attraction here. Highly recommended.

Film: 9.0 (out of 10)…Picture: 8.0…Sound: 9.0

(Reviewed on a JVC DLA-RS1 1080p projector and Stewart Studiotek 130, 78" wide, 16:9 screen, with a Pioneer BDP-HD1 Blu-ray player, Denon AVR-4306 AV receiver with Audyssey room compensation engaged, Revel B15 subwoofer, and Aperion 633-T L/R (newest version), 634-VAC center, and 632-LR surrounds).

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