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 time"). 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 Holiday, 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. 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."