Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls: The Greatest Song Ever Filmed

THE GREATEST SONG EVER FILMED

Recently, I published a review of the astonishing performance by Jennifer Hudson of “And I am Telling You I’m Not Going” in the movie Dreamgirls. Yesterday, Jody Rosen published a review of Hudson’s performance in Slate Magazine, entitled “The Greatest Song Ever Filmed.” In that truly amazing review of a truly amazing 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.

The key figure 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 turned 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 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.”

AND I AM TELLING YOU I’M NOT GOING

14 Responses to “Jennifer Hudson in Dreamgirls: The Greatest Song Ever Filmed”

  1. helayne Says:

    i would like the lyrics for Love you I do by effie white the wonderful song jennifer hudson sang in dreamgirls.thank you helayne van h outen

  2. disembedded Says:

    Hi Helayne,

    Thanks for your comment. I’ve sent you the lyrics by e-mail. Best wishes to you!

  3. Rhea Says:

    I have not seen the film yet, but I was lucky enough to be working in the entertainment press in Boston on the night that “Dreamgirls” opened for out-of-town tryouts. So I got to see/hear Jennifer Holliday sing that amazing song live for the first time! So many years later, I still remember the power of that performance. I am looking forward to hearing Jennifer Hudson in the film.

  4. disembedded Says:

    Hi Rhea,

    You were a lucky one, to see and hear Jennifer Holliday sing it live onstage. Jennifer Hudson has her own take on it in the film, but it is truly a great moment. Thanks for your comment!

  5. Brittany Says:

    Hi, how are you doing. I really dont want to take up alot of your time, But if you can I would really like the Lyrics to that amazing song Jennifer Hudson song in the hit movie “DREAMGIRLS”. -And I Am Telling You. Thankyou!!!

  6. calmpassionate01 Says:

    i have looked everywhere for this! she did her thing on this song and in the movie.thanks for having it for those looking.

  7. tameka Says:

    man she killed that song she hit the notes perfect, wonderful
    my hat go of to you jennifer wonderful job!!!!
    you gave it ya all i no that
    wonderfu!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. Brandy Says:

    Jennifer of course you already know that you killed that song. Your voice is so wonderful and strong. You sing with passion and you have a unique voice. hen I hear that song I just sing along with you as if I can really hit those notes! YOU GO GIRL!!!!!!!!

  9. richard Says:

    Jennifer is has a magnitude and avoice touches the world
    I love her passion for the effort she put into becoming a
    musical icon and hope to more of her in the near future
    Jennifer god bless you.

  10. richard Says:

    Jennifer is a true musical icon that has set out to be true
    to her talents.I love her in so many ways it unimangible
    to any work u perform there must be passion.So jennifer
    we thank you for your contribution to the music industry
    and hope we will see more of you in the near future so
    god bless you.

  11. DJTimbo Says:

    j-hud is the best singer to come along in a long time, beyonce is beautiful and talented, and sure there are other singers who are good singers, but j-hud is one of the greatest singers of the 21st century. mark my word, we will all be talking about how this voluptuous beauty stole the show and blew us all away, 50 years from now. She’s phenomenal

  12. Nicky Says:

    great performance by jen-hud in dream girls, just goes
    to show that not coming first in any competition does
    not mean that greater and better things are not yet to come
    on the horizon……. u go girl… u have talent use it.
    u r an inspiration to many full figure girls out there….
    one love from JAMAICA

  13. Neal Says:

    Can someone answer this question for me? I could have sworn that I saw Jennifer Hudson sing “This ain’t no party” in the Dreamgirls movie. A friend of mine tells me that I’m mistaken. Can anyone verify this?


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