JENNIFER HUDSON AS EFFIE WHITE IN DREAMGIRLS
HOPEFULLY AWAITING AN OSCAR ACCEPTANCE SPEECH FROM JENNIFER HUDSON
“I know that she hasn’t won yet, but she’s the frontrunner on nearly everyone’s Oscar predictions list to win The 2007 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. However, since she’s also the nominee who has the most quickly soared up to celebrity status from a remarkably normal, non-celebrity life, I’m looking to Hudson for the evening’s most humble words.”
JENNIFER HUDSON: A STAR IS BORN
In 2003, Chicagoan Jennifer Hudson finished seventh among 70,000 hopefuls in “American Idol.” But now, Hudson suddenly is getting excited Oscar support from film critics and devoted motion picture audience members from all over the country for her film debut in “Dreamgirls.” Hudson, who is only 25, sparkles in a cast that includes Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles and Eddie Murphy. She has an unusual mastery of urban gospel in her voice, a clarity and sense of “truth” that she brings to the character of Effie White in the movie that is based upon the story of the Supremes. Ironically, the original Tony Award-winning stage musical was based in Chicago, although the film version is set in Detroit.
Hudson’s riveting five-octave performance of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is her big moment in the film. It belongs to her like the stars belong to the sky. Effie stands tall with dignity after being cast aside by her manager/boyfriend (Foxx) in an unforgettable scene that was filmed over four days on a Los Angeles soundstage. Hudson’s performance of that song prompted excited talk early on about her being a frontrunner in the competition to receive an Academy Awards Oscar for the Best Supporting Actress performance, especially since Academy members always love a musical.
The rags-to-riches parallels between “American Idol” and “Dreamgirls” are clear. Even Elton John thought Hudson was robbed of the grand “American Idol” prize, saying she was the “best of the lot.” After Hudson got the boot, “American Idol” host Simon Cowell snarled at her, “You get one shot, and the runner-ups; you ain’t never gonna be seen again.” In a recent interview, Jennifer stated, “I’ve had a similar journey as Effie.” “Me being a part of ‘Idol,’ her being part of the group. I was kicked off the talent show. She was the founder and lead singer of the group [The Dreamettes] and kicked off to the background. We both go through our journeys, trying to hold on to our dream and achieve our goal. We have hardships but we prevail at the end.”
Jennifer’s father, Samuel Simpson, died some time ago, but her mother Darnell Hudson still lives in Chicago’s Southside Englewood neighborhood. Hudson’s older brother Jason is a mechanic, and her older sister Julia is a school bus driver. Every time she sings, Hudson thinks of her late grandmother Julia Kate Hudson, who sang at The Pleasant Gift Missionary Baptist Church at 4526 S. Greenwood Street on Chicago’s Southside, where Hudson got her start. Her grandmother died in 1998. “To build my emotions, I thought of her,” Hudson said. “Like, ‘What if she could see me now?’ She used to sing ‘How Great Thou Art.’ I have a recording of Mahalia Jackson singing that on my iPod. I’d listen to it before a song. There was one point they had to stop the cameras, because it was too emotional.”
“I never had any voice training,” she continued. “I started in the soprano section of the choir.” Her first solo was “Must Jesus Bare The Cross Alone.” Hudson later sang at Dunbar Vocational High School, which in the past produced music greats like Lou Rawls and Cleotha and Pervis Staples of the Staple Singers (sisters Mavis and Yvonne Staple went to Francis Parker High School on Chicago’s Northside). How will Hudson stay grounded through her rapid ascent? “It could have been anybody,” she said. “Millions didn’t make it, but I was one that did. I’m grateful. And I realize Chicago is my home and my reality. I come home and I have to stand in line like everybody else. I love the moment of Hollywood, but you need that reality to smack you in the face.” Yes, she still sounds very much like a Chicagoan.
Rex Reed, the New York City motion picture and theater critic, raved about Hudson’s performance in an issue of The New York Observer:
“[As] camera-ready as she is, even without makeup, it’s the spectacular Jennifer Hudson as Effie, the Florence Ballard counterpart, who brings the audience to its feet screaming the show-stopping R&B anthem “I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” In the original Broadway production created by Michael Bennett, this song came out of Jennifer Holliday’s lungs like fire from a blast furnace. History repeats itself here. Different Jennifer, same show-business earthquake tremors.“
JENNIFER HUDSON: “I AM CHANGING”
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JENNIFER HUDSON: “AND I’M TELLING YOU THAT I’M NOT GOING”
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INTRODUCING MS. JENNIFER HOLLIDAY: “AND I’M TELLING YOU THAT I’M NOT GOING”
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THE GREATEST SONG EVER FILMED
At the time of the initial opening of Dreamgirls in theaters, Jody Rosen published a review of Hudson’s performance in Slate Magazine, entitled “The Greatest Song Ever Filmed.” This was written even before Hudson had received the Golden Globes Award for her performance in the role of Effie in the movie. In that truly amazing review of Hennifer Hudson’s astonishing performance, Rosen wrote:
“Reading the early reviews of Dreamgirls, you could be forgiven for getting the impression that it’s not really a movie, but a song, surrounded by 125 minutes of padding. You wouldn’t exactly be wrong, either. Reviewers have lavished superlatives on Jennifer Hudson’s showstopping performance of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” just like theater critics did when Jennifer Holliday sang the song in Dreamgirls‘ initial Broadway run nearly a quarter-century ago, and there’s no denying that it is by far the film’s most riveting scene—the one moment, in this musical about music, when a song really grips your emotions. (The costumes and art direction in Dreamgirls are fantastic and period-perfect, but the score’s alleged Motown pastiches are laughably off). The centerpiece, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” doesn’t quite feel like a pop song, even though Holliday’s version topped the Black singles chart back in 1982 and reached No. 22 on the pop charts. There’s a bit too much Broadway in the whimpering little bridge section that arrives at about the 1:20 mark in Hudson’s recording (“We’re part of the same place, we’re part of the same mind“). And the song’s length is clearly a product of staging imperatives. (Hudson spends the first half of the song clutching and tearing at Jamie Foxx). Real pop songs have less slack.
Still, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is an amazing piece of music, which will be blowing back listeners’ ears long after Jennifer Hudson marches off with her inevitable Best Supporting Actress Oscar. The song arrives midway through the film—it was the first-act closer on Broadway—when Effie White (Hudson), the erstwhile lead singer of Detroit trio the Dreams, learns that she’s being dumped both from the group and by her boyfriend, Curtis Taylor Jr. (Foxx). It is a squall of pain and defiance, delivered over swelling strings and gospel-flavored piano chords in series of crescendos: Just when you think Hudson is done, she rears back and delivers another, yet more stirring, skyward-striving chorus. While the pathos of the song is immense, it is dazzling simply as a piece of vocal athleticism. And Hudson has managed to claim the song as her own in spite of the hugely intimidating specter of Holliday’s original. Reportedly, Hudson watched Holliday’s torrid performance at the 1982 Tony Awards dozens of times—talk about overcoming the anxiety of influence.
The result is a cinematic diva moment for the ages: Even Judy Garland’s most iconic on-screen ballad performances seem small compared with the last lingering shot of Hudson, the camera whirling overhead as she blasts out a final “You’re gonna love me!” In fact, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” is a kind of summary of the great American diva tradition, our native answer to the grand opera aria-belters of the old world. The term diva has gotten rather watered down in current pop culture usage, to the point where the title is given to any moderately famous actress or singer with an air of hauteur about her and a personal trainer in her employ. But, in the classical musical formulation, Paris Hilton is certainly no diva—and for that matter, neither is Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston. Old-fashioned divadom entails not just an imperious attitude and a big voice, but a theme—pain, particularly as supplied by callous men and cruel fate—and a task: to transcend that anguish through cathartic declamation. You know the divas of whom I speak: Maria Callas, Edith Piaf, Billie Holliday, Garland, Aretha Franklin, and today’s Queen of Pain, Mary J. Blige. And now, perhaps, Jennifer Hudson.
ARETHA FRANKLIN: RESPECT
The key figure in this tradition is Aretha Franklin. She was the diva who brought the tolling piano chords, dramatically slow-boiling songs, and explosive vocal expressiveness of African-American gospel and applied them to the secular subject of romantic love. It’s there in her greatest ballads: “Ain’t No Way,” “Oh Me, Oh My,” “Sweet Bitter Love,” even lesser, latter-day songs like “It Hurts Like Hell” and her killer cover version of Lionel Richie’s “Truly.” The emotional heft of these songs, and the power of Franklin’s musical genius, is self-evident. But there is more here. Political coding has been the norm in African-American music dating back to slavery, and the political dimension is especially pronounced in Franklin’s work, with its strong gospel overtones. You need look no further than her most famous song, “Respect,” which, through the sheer power of her performance, Aretha transformed from a plea for sexual gratification into a civil rights anthem.
ARETHA FRANKLIN: RESPECT
Of course, a feminist politics is implicit in all diva ballads, with their fervent demands for proper treatment by men—demands that carry special poignancy and moral force in the music of Aretha Franklin and her followers, given the historically heavy burden shouldered by black women. In a society that still hasn’t solved the problems or purged the guilt of its racial legacy, the spectacle of a black woman stormily standing up for herself can feel less like pop song convention, and more like a call to conscience.
Which brings us back to Hudson and her big song. Not a few writers have noted how Effie White’s story grades into Jennifer Hudson’s. In Dreamgirls, Effie is demoted from lead singer duties in favor of the lighter-skinned, thinner, prettier, and slighter-voiced Deena Jones (played by Beyoncé), who incidentally marries the man who fathered Effie’s daughter. Hudson was a favorite to win Season 3 of American Idol, when she was inexplicably voted off. Elton John decried the result as racist, and indeed, it was hard not to see Hudson’s dismissal as a case of the big-boned black girl getting screwed over. So when Hudson tears into “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going,” she is singing not just for Effie White, but for Jennifer Hudson, American Idol also-ran, and for all African-American women who don’t quite look like Miss USA (or for that matter, Beyoncé Knowles)—not to mention those millions of black women raising children without a man in the house. Of course, the greatness of the song is the transcendence it offers, to those who know Effie’s pain firsthand, and to everyone else. Hudson’s voice booms, huge and bright, rippling with grief but bringing ecstasy. At the screening I saw, the audience gasped and applauded throughout the song, a first in my movie-going experience.
“No, no, no, no,” Hudson sings. Sitting in a darkened theater, you want to cry, “Yes, yes, yes.”
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