To understand the definition of a showstopper, look no further than "And I Am Telling You (I'm Not Going)," which became an instant Broadway legend in 1981 when Jennifer Holliday belted out the song in Michael Bennett's production of "Dreamgirls." Now, in Bill Condon's knockout movie version of the musical, the number belongs to Jennifer Hudson, and her star-making rendition is going to raise goose bumps across the land.
The song--a raw, roiling aria of defiance and pain--is sung by Effie (Hudson), the hefty, difficult, soulful lead of the Dreamettes, an aspiring Detroit girl group in the early '60s (think the Supremes) who are about to cross over from the chitlins circuit to mainstream success. But to achieve this goal, Effie must be dumped as lead singer in place of Deena (Beyoncé Knowles), who has half the voice but is svelte, light-skinned and malleable. To make things worse, Deena has also replaced Effie in the bed of the group's smart, ruthlessly ambitious manager Curtis (Jamie Foxx). "And I Am Telling You" is Effie's response to being cast aside. With her powerhouse voice, Hudson turns this Henry Krieger/Tom Eyen song into a heartbreaking yelp of anguish so potent one preview audience gave it a standing ovation. That's not supposed to happen in movie theaters.
"Dreamgirls" would be worth the price of admission for this one number, but it has plenty of other pleasures. There's Eddie Murphy's blistering turn as James "Thunder" Early, the swaggering, James Brown-like R&B star who resists "whitening up" for the mass market. There are Sharen Davis's costumes, which take us from Motown sparkle to disco dazzle, and there's Tobias Schliessler's seductive cinematography, which bridges Detroit grit and theatrical flash. And the music itself, a clever but sometimes generic pastiche of '60s and '70s R&B, soul and pop, has been rejuvenated by the producing team the Underdogs, who pump up the funk.
"Dreamgirls" is conceived in broad, electric strokes: it's both epic in its ambition to capture the watershed era when black music revolutionized the all-white pop world, and intimate in calibrating the personal cost of turning performers into product. Condon does a remarkable job reimagining "Dreamgirls" for the screen, creating montages within the songs that are like stories within a story. Sometimes he's too inventive, and the visual clutter becomes distracting. But what makes "Dreamgirls" a blast is Condon's obvious love for the show's heart-on-its-sleeve theatricality. Beyoncé buttons down her natural exuberance to play Deena, the demure but ambitious diva. Anika Noni Rose more than holds her own as the third Dreamgirl, Lorrell, and Keith Robinson quietly shines as Effie's songwriting brother. But the movie belongs to Hudson as the proud, self-destructive Effie. When she's center stage, "Dreamgirls" transports you to movie musical heaven.