Jennifer Holliday: And I’m Telling You, I’m Not Going Away
From Dreamgirls (Original Broadway Cast) (Decca, 1982)

Jennifer Hudson: And I’m Telling You, I’m Not Going Away
From Dreamgirls (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) (Sony, 2006)

I’m breaking away from James Brown contemplations to share a small, personal confession: I haven’t cried in years. At most, once or twice in the last 10 years and even then, not since the late ’90s. I’m sure this is something a therapist could get to the bottom to but regardless, it takes a lot to move me to tears.

I share this because the closest I’ve come recently was listening to Jennifer Hudson sing “And I Am Telling You, I’m Not Going Away.” The song has been mentioned in practically every review you can read about Dreamgirls but I was listening to the song prior to seeing the movie (which I finally did today). That’s extraordinary, to me at least, that a recording would push me to the edge of some kind of emotional catharsis. When I saw the film – even though I knew the scene was coming, even though I knew what to expect from the song, it once again hit me somewhere deep. Not surprisingly, the theatre erupted in applause and catcalls and I’ve read that at some screenings, people arose in standing ovations. For a movie, ok?

I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about the song that’s so powerful – and I’m not the only one. (By the way, can I just say that I love the fact that there still exists an opportunity for people to write criticism about a single song whether it’s, the NY Times or even, yes, I thought Jody had some great things to say in his Slate piece, especially this graf:“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.”As Jody suggests, it’s high-time the term “diva” gets reclaimed. I also thought it was important to also note: “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,” and though the film moves through issues of race and class with a conventionally light Hollywood touch, Hudson’s character far transcends that of “just a singer.” She’s belting out an intense cry of longing, pain, frustration and power that if you can’t feel it…well, you just can’t feel.

But for all this, I’ve been able to figure out what the moment is in the song where it just tears into me. It comes about 2/3rds the way through, after the more uptempo bridge has pulled back to allow Hudson to return to the main chorus, where she’s now stretched out every melismatic note as if her last (note: this is one case where the deservedly tired technique of melisma is actually executed exactly as it should be. American Idol twits please take notes and realize that if you can’t do pull this off, then don’t bother trying).

At around 3:40pm, Hudson screams, “I’m staying, I’m staying, and you, and you, and you, you’re gonna love me!” and the band bursts into full power right here with the song’s main musical motif – a simple but incredibly effective melodic passage that manages to accentuate Hudson’s singing beyond where her voice alone could take it…yet never detracts or attempts to compete with her performance. She holds that note – “meeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” before taking it back again into, “you’re gonna love me” and the band makes sure that the longer you listen, the deeper you get pulled in with the gravity of it all.

Let’s be honest – the music for the song itself is really not much to write home about. Actually, the music in the entire film is nothing to write home about – but it’s at this moment where the accompaniment is essential to pushing the song to that proverbial next level where every beat of both Hudson’s vocals and the band ratchets up the energy level exponentially.

In the last year, I’ve had similar, transcendent experiences with particular songs – the two most powerful being on Roberta Flack’s “Gone Away” around 4 minutes in (listen to it and you’ll fundamentally understand why anyone would have thought to turn that passage into T.I.’s “What You Know”) and The Dells’ “Love Is Blue” at :40, when the singer and group put together that awesome contrapuntal exchange. As great as those moments are, what Hudson pulls off is something even more extraordinary, not the least of which is because she’s belting out with a gale force that Flack doesn’t attempt and the Dells can’t muster.

It’s best to take a pause here and note: Jennifer Holliday did this same song on Broadway originally and made it into the classic it is today and I would be incredibly irresponsible for not saying that what she did with that song 25 years ago is still the standard against which anything else that follows will be compared to and rightfully so. I loathe to have to compare the two even though it’s impossible not to and it’s impossible to take anything away from Holliday’s original. She has the more polished, nuanced voice, she has more performative experience to bring to the plate. What Hudson has in contrast is a rawness (not to mention incredible voice) and also the benefit of an expertly shot and choreographed cinematic apparatus that Holliday didn’t have. This is a long-winded way of saying that while Hudson doesn’t upstage Holliday’s original, she does enough with it to at least figuratively co-own the rights. Both are incredible. (By the way, the L.A. Times recently ran a story of how Holliday’s been shut out of the film project on every level despite the fact that her recording of the song is still being used to help push the movie. The irony is amazing. The story of Effie isn’t so fictional, after all (also, please see how Beyonce got the best actress nod while Hudson had to settle for supporting actress even though any halfwit could tell you that Dreamgirls is about Effie, not Deana).

I have more to say about the movie, its depiction of Motown and its music and the story of Florence Ballard (the tragic inspiration for Effie) but I’ll save that for another time. If you want a primer, read A.O. Scott’s review in the NY Times which I thought was very fair in its criticisms.