It doesn’t matter how electrifying it is, a scene can’t stop a movie. It will just keep running on the screen, no matter what. That doesn’t mean, though, that a movie can’t have a “showstopper” just as a live performance can.
That’s what happened at the early promotional screening of the film version of “Dreamgirls.” The musical’s big “showstopper” on stage is when the Florence Ballard character (the show is loosely based on the early history of the Supremes), sings “I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.”
What happened at that movie screening was something I’d never encountered before or since. As Jennifer Hudson sang the song, in the film, women throughout the audience began to clap and shout encouragement. As Hudson got revved up, many women in the audience stood up while they applauded wildly and screamed at the screen.
It occurred to me that if we had been watching that version of “Dreamgirls” on a stage live, they - quite literally - would have had to stop the show. The performers would have had to wait a few seconds – 20 is what a colleague estimates is the usual duration in live performance – for the applause and screaming to calm down and let the musical proceed.
As I looked up at Hudson onscreen, the only real reaction possible at that moment was a variant of “wow.” That moment, I said to myself, was clearly a career-maker.
And so it was. She went on to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She remains a powerhouse, waiting for the right circumstance to plug in.
She made it to seventh place in season three of “American Idol.”
The only other “American Idol” contestant in 15 seasons that I have a serious affection for is Kat Edmondson, who was called “demure” on season two of “American Idol,” was voted off early, went to Austin, Texas, sang in clubs and developed into the exact kind of wildly idiosyncratic jazz/pop singer that is still virtual anathema to “American Idol,” even with Harry Connick Jr. as one of the judges. (Go to Spotify and listen to Edmondson’s version of “Summertime” to get an idea of how idiosyncratic she is.)
I’ve always found the first “AI” winner Kelly Clarkson to be a bit of a guilty pleasure. I know that songs like “Since U Been Gone” and “Stronger” are artificially simulated throb of the most plastic sort for completely interchangeable pop belters. I also know that a song like “A Moment Like This” is a nauseating promotion for the show itself. But I don’t care. I’m delighted there’s a Kelly Clarkson in the world and that she sells the bejabbers out of records.
I’m not as happy about Carrie Underwood, Kellie Pickler or Jordin Sparks but, among “American Idol” alums to make a name for themselves, I understand their appeal.
If Chris Daughtry wanted to form his own band and Clay Aiken wanted to be a Democratic candidate for Congress (he lost), those too seemed logical extensions of their “American Idol” origins.
Otherwise, neither the show nor its alums has ever meant much to me. I always liked the early rounds best because I love the glorious native surrealism of what people in America think is actually a talent for “show business.”
That’s why I’ve always greatly preferred “America’s Got Talent” to “American Idol.” The pseudo-professionalism of “American Idol” was like watching cookie dough volunteering to be kneaded and shaped and baked into a stale cellophane-wrapped cookie.
On “America’s Got Talent,” show business lunatics force the show’s judges and America itself to redefine completely what they think is “show business.” When Heidi Klum declares her love and delight with “The Great Regurgitator,” that’s my kind of show.
It’s directly related to what happens too on “Dancing With the Stars,” when the show repeatedly forces its audience to enlarge its idea of “normal” and accept something very new. (This season, we’re watching the heartening and amazing talents of a deaf contestant in a dance contest.)
In ancient TV terms, “American Idol” was just an ultra-slick British import combining “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour” and “Queen for a Day.” The difference is that winners get to be kings and queens for a few weeks and a precious few – Clarkson, Underwood, Hudson – for life.
I won’t miss “American Idol” much. Nevertheless, I feel genuinely bad for all the people who will. The show engaged the best part of its faithful audience – the desire to encourage and nurture others.
Oddly, what I’ll miss most about the show is not the pseudo-criticism of the judges but Ryan Seacrest, backstage with the contestants, encouraging them and holding their hands as a kind of older brother or coach or therapist-on-the-fly or high school drama teacher. All those years of Seacrest interacting with contestants are unlikely to be strung together in a “let’s remember” montage but they should be. There would be a genuine sweetnss to them – as well as no small weirdness.