That Moment In ‘Dreamgirls’ When Effie Stands Alone
Dreamgirls is a 2006 dramatic musical about a trio of black female soul singers who cross over to the pop charts in the early 1960s, facing their own personal struggles along the way.
Recently, we wrote about the very talented Jamie Foxx, spotlighting a few films of interest before his Oscar-winning role in Ray. The guy is endlessly watchable. Naturally, he got himself pretty busy following that success, including a starring role in another musical, this one set at the height of the Motown years, and while he’s not a singer in this time, is pretty darned good in a film featuring a large cast that does. The movie performed well and was a solid box office hit, earning praise for its performances, especially that of Eddie Murphy, playing a troubled soul singer whose star soon fades. Seriously, if you haven’t seen this, do it now, ‘cuz Murphy is astonishing. That said, the movie is about the music and there’s a number of terrific song and dance sequences that truly make the movie what it is. Let’s take a look.
The story follows a Detroit car salesman named Curtis Taylor Jr. (Foxx), who breaks into the booming early 60s music scene by signing a trio of young female soul singers and getting them a gig for a big act named James “Thunder” Early (that’s Murphy). However, when things start to shift, Taylor makes some drastic changes, putting the girls up front before also forcing talented but overweight and bellicose Effie (Jennifer Hudson) out of the group and eventually into poverty … though she’s not going without a dream.
Directed by Bill Condon, Dreamgirls is very a loosely told story of real supergroup The Supremes but is more a cautionary tale than anything else with slick salesman Taylor knowing how to push quality product but leaving a trail of destruction in his wide wake as his singers begin to fail and fall apart as he ditches them like debris, repositioning and recasting his acts for Top 40 glory. As mentioned, Murphy is a sensation as the crumbling Early, the once popular frontman succumbing to drugs and obscurity in a performance that is without a doubt the best of his career (with much respect to his groundbreaking early work). But it is newcomer Hudson, a former American Idol winner, in her acting debut, that straight up owns this film from the opening act right to the end with a heartbreaking, passionate turn that won her an Academy Award Best Supporting Actress.
Without giving too much away, I want to shine a little light on a profound moment when things begin to fall apart for the singer. At this point in the story, Taylor is pushing the girls to go commerical, and to do so, attract white audiences for Billboard success. Unfortunately, he thinks Effie is too large and her voice too ‘churchy’ to stay up front and so replaces her with the much slimmer, model-type Deanna (Beyoncé Knowles). Effie is furious about being relegated to back-up, despite the group’s rising stardom and growing worldwide popularity. However, what hurts worse when Curtis shifts his affection from her to Deanna, a blow that cuts deep. When the group arrive at Caesar’s Palace, and after learning she is pregnant, Taylor tells her that she is fired, and he’s out of her life, leading to a musical moment when she belts out the stirring “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Before I dig into this, here’s the clip, just so you get a sense of what it’s all about.
The song was written by Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger, and originated in the original Broadway musical, which opened in 1981, and has a history of favor. Jennifer Holliday portrayed Effie in that production and the song won her a Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female when it was released as a single the following year. It closes the first act of the show and is considered the musical’s highlight. It does so in the film as well.
It’s the passion that kicks it, Effie’s fierce independence that bowls us over, even while her heart is breaking. It’s a classic torch song but as such is also a declaration of power, one that reshapes her path and story, and we remember its message well into the second half, seeing it as a kind of mantra for her resurrection later, even as the words themselves are in lament of losing Taylor. Here’s a sample:
Tear down the mountains
Yell, scream and shout like you can say what you want
I’m not walking out
Stop all the rivers, push, strike and kill
I’m not gonna leave you
There’s no way I will
She sings of him, repeatedly saying she “No, no, no, no way I’m living without you” but it is the opposite that Effie (and we) learns is true, that in fact, she not only does but can live without him, that through the struggles that follow, she finds greater success in herself. The song inspires evolution and serves as the landmark where Effie begins to transform.
What I like about this moment is its isolation. Taylor literally runs out of the room without looking back and actually never hears the song. Why? Because the song isn’t for him, even if she is directing it in his direction. This is for Effie, an emotional reckoning of where she stands and the line she’s drawing in the sand right now. It’s as if she needs to face the cold reality that these are the feelings she has for him in order to understand how fixed she is by them. The irony of singing on stage to an empty house serves as a metaphor for how she is seen by Taylor, or rather ‘unseen’. No matter the voice, she is nothing without the ‘right’ appearance and deserves no audience as such, at least in his mind. That same stage is now the battleground where she takes to the center and barrells out an anthem to resilience, the final words “You’re gonna love me, yes you are” a promise to the world, not Taylor.
Lastly, it’s down to Hudson who does nothing short of magic with the song, letting it fill her to her bones. Watch how she points and directs her words to the empty chairs, vowing that in the end it is they who will see her for she is, that she will earn their praise. Hudson is so explosive here it’s chilling to watch. You will be moved.
Dreamgirls is not a particularly eye-opening film and it does wallow a bit in the superficiality of the real drama, the movie designed more for raw entertainment than anything more deeply exposing of the history it tries to tell. Still, it thrives on its performances and is a must see for Eddie Murphy fans and the incredible work of Jennifer Hudson, centered on a mid-story personal call to arms in the wake of heartbreak. It’s a great cinematic moment.