When it was announced that one of the four new songs added to Henry Krieger and the late Tom Eyen's existing Dreamgirls score for the film adaptation was a big "11th hour number" for the character of Deena Jones, some stage purists were quick to dismiss the decision as a diva demand by Deena's screen portrayer, Beyoncé Knowles; that she also contributed to the lyrics just added some fuel to the cynicism. While the true effectiveness of the new tune, "Listen," cannot be completely, accurately assessed until seen and heard playing out within the context of the film, based on an early (no pun intended) listen, those cynics need not have worried. Unlike Oscar-eligible original songs grafted onto existing stage works, "Listen" serves a practical purpose on a few levels. One of odder aspects of Eyen's original stage book was that Deena was the only lead character to not have a song that could be called solely her own; instead, she is featured as lead singer on a number of songs performed by her group, the Dreams, and both of the show's huge ballads belong to the character of Effie White. Screenwriter/director Bill Condon has also found the perfect spot to insert a major number for the character: a key moment when Deena makes a major move toward becoming her own person.
But all of that would be moot if the song itself didn't deliver the goods, and songwriters Krieger, Knowles, Scott Butler, and Anne Preven have crafted a song that is not only a virtual lock for a Best Original Song nomination but also more than likely one that'll have a long afterlife at karaoke bars, on American Idol, set lists for any diva-in-training, and cover albums. Early buzz labeled the song as Deena's analogue to Effie's iconic "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," but with its slow build to an explosive climax of empowerment and the words to match, it's more akin to Effie's other iconic song, "I Am Changing." While it remains to be seen if Knowles will deliver an overall effective acting performance as Deena, her spot-on lyrics show a firm grasp on the character and her relationship with lover/svengali Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx); for newcomers to the material, the song quite vividly and succinctly sums up their tortured, dysfunctional story. There have been two early criticisms of the song: (1) this power ballad doesn't feel entirely of a piece of the score's largely classic soul sound; and (2) Knowles's rafter-shaking belt is the antithesis of Deena's softer, sweeter voice. In the case of the first, the song may not sound nor feel terribly specific to the period and overall genre, but Krieger has given it a fairly timeless pop quality that enables it to place comfortably in the '60s-'70s setting; in fact, the terrific production by The Underdogs achieves the tricky feat of sounding like something relevant even to today's popular music yet also having the epic emotional bombast of classic Broadway showtunes. Knowles's powerhouse, richly emotive vocal falls into that latter tradition, particularly of the climactic "11 o'clock number" tradition, and its dramatic contrast to Deena's usual sound is justifiable as the song is all about her finally finding her own voice--and, indeed, it starts with said sweeter, softer, refined voice before erupting into a raw, cathartic wail. Hopefully Condon and--more importantly--Knowles can do the song visual justice in the film.