Thursday, January 11, 2007

And I Am Telling You -- I Don't Know What I'm Talking About.

So I saw Dreamgirls recently. I loved the show -- not so much because of the plot and the pacing could be a bit off, but more because of the music and energy. The Effie (Jennifer Hudson) character successfully steals the show for the first half of the movie, and Beyonce blends into the background as the inferior singer in the trio. Effie unfortunately moves into the background for much of the second half of the movie, but, as I say, I just enjoyed the music and the excitement. Besides, when something like Dreamgirls shows up at the Uptown Theater in Cleveland Park, there's bound to be a fantastic mix of gay boys and black women which always make for a fun time.

Having never seen the original stage version, all I knew about from it was what I had heard previously -- mostly, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," by Jennifer Holliday. That woman has got a powerful set of lungs on her, and her performance is therefore completely breathtaking. I'd heard it a million times and it just sounds beautiful:

And I am telling you
I'm not going.
You're the best man I've never known!
There's no way I'll ever go!
No no no no no.
I'm not living without you.
I'm not living without you.
I'm staying.
I'm staying.
And you, and you -- you're gonna love me!

If you don't believe me about the power of this woman's song (though why wouldn't you believe me?), check out Holliday's performance at the 1982 Tony Awards:

[Obligatory spoiler alert! -- Don't read further if you haven't seen the movie and still want to.]

So the song is great and strong and all -- "You're going to love me, dammit!" -- and in a vacuum I love the romantic concept of swearing that you'll devote your life to earning the love of the one person you feel destined to become your true love...

... but in the context of the movie you quickly come to realize that the song is tremendously ironic at best, sad and kind of pitiful at worst.

The song comes at the point in the movie when Effie realizes that she's been replaced as one the Dreamgirls. (She's replaced by a skinny chick -- because it's all about what will sell.) Feeling betrayed, she turns to the manager (with whom she had developed an intimate relationship) for an explanation, only to be told that the decision had been made, and she was out.

Then Effie launches into it: "I'm not going!" she cries. "I'm staying!" To Curtis (the manager), she belts out: "You're the best man I've ever known! There's no way I'll ever go!"

But Curtis is now not only the man who has cut her out of the show, he is also that man she has just accused of sleeping with Deena (Beyonce) -- and we later find out either that she was right, or she was prescient. Is he really still the best man she's ever known if he can be such a cad?

"I'm staying! I'm staying!" she cries. "You're gonna love me!" I always thought those words meant she was do what it took to redeem herself in the eyes of someone who had fallen out of love with her. But that's not what happens in the show. She's resolving to stay -- whether in the act or in the relationship -- from which she has been forcibly booted.

In fact, none of her predictions and resolutions even remotely come close to coming true. "I'm staying," she resolves, but she doesn't. From all appearances she drifts off out of the limelight, has her child without telling anyone, burns through the half a million she had earned until then and ends up living on public assistance in less-than-luxurious digs with her daughter.

"You're gonna love me!" she insists... but she doesn't fight for the man (not that she should, seeing as he wasn't a very nice man anyway), even though he was her baby-daddy.

Sad to say, the song now has taken on a whole new meaning now that I've seen it performed in the context in which it was created. It's no longer a demonstration of determination and will with regard to a lost love. It's more of a swan song -- the dying wail of a beautiful creature. It's not about empowerment and overcoming love's obstacles -- it's about saying you will, and then rolling over and letting Cupid sucker-punch you.

But how completely awesome was it that Loretta Devine, one of the original on-stage Dreamgirls, made an appearance in the movie? Sing it, girl!

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