In the new film Cadillac Records, which tells the story of the pioneering Chicago blues label Chess Records, Beyonce Knowles makes a memorable entrance. Playing the singer Etta James, Knowles is introduced to the label’s co-founder Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) in a hotel room, where she sprawls across the bed and snaps, “Don’t be looking at me like I ain’t wearing no drawers.” She then curses at everyone and everything in sight before hiding in the bathroom, where she unleashes the voice that resulted in a long string of classic R’n’B hits for James.
It’s startling to see Knowles — one of the few pop stars left with a wholesome, good-girl image — swaggering and swearing through her performance. But her mother, Tina, who vets all the scripts that are submitted to her, flagged this one as a keeper, noting that the hard-living, emotionally scarred James could be the role of a lifetime.
In an interview on the top floor of a hotel on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Knowles said that when she read the script: “I said, ‘I have to do this movie,’ but I was terrified. Was I really ready?”
Knowles’ most significant previous role was in 2006’s Dreamgirls, for which she earned a Golden Globe nomination. Even so, her study of the life of James and her work on the film not only resulted in new dramatic range, it also altered the direction of her new album, I Am ... Sasha Fierce, which is being released tomorrow on Music World/Columbia Records.
There was certainly no guarantee that a woman who appeared on the cover of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue could be convincing as the heroin-addicted daughter of a prostitute, whose powerhouse sound conveyed a lifetime of heartbreak and defiance in songs like At Last and Tell Mama, incorporating a blues attitude into a wide range of pop genres.
“I was surprised at how much Beyonce threw the glamour out the window so easily and so joyfully, and embraced the unattractiveness of being strung out,” said Darnell Martin, the writer and director of the film, which is to open in the US on Dec. 5. Though the role was written with Knowles in mind, Martin said she was impressed by how far she pushed herself, physically and emotionally, into the darkest parts of James’ life. “She was really excited about getting that raw,” Martin said. “She really wanted to dig in and get real.”
The climax of Cadillac Records — with a disheveled Etta James saved from an overdose by Leonard Chess in her empty, ghostly house — makes for an impressive contrast with the Beyonce who strode quickly through the hotel room’s door, talking quickly and smiling broadly.
On the day after the presidential election she was decked out in an “Obama-inspired” outfit — a navy blue double-breasted suit and a red-white-and-blue-striped tie. Knowles, 27, was supposed to be in Japan doing publicity for the new album, but she cut her trip short to be in New York to watch the returns with friends at home; she decorated her apartment with balloons and flags for the occasion.
“I fell asleep literally with tears in my eyes, crying and smiling at the same time,” she said, seated cross-legged on a couch. “I almost feel guilty talking about the record, because there’s more important things going on.”
The album marks an ambitious step for the Houston-born Knowles, who — as a solo artist (using only her first name) and as a member of the trio Destiny’s Child — has sold more than 75 million albums worldwide. It’s a double-disc set: One CD, I Am, is a ballad-heavy set of relatively spare, introspective songs; the second disc, Sasha Fierce, takes its name from her onstage alter ego and shifts focus to more up-tempo dance tracks. (Continuing an annoying industry trend, the album is being released simultaneously in a “standard version,” with 11 songs, and a “deluxe version,” containing 18 songs.)
In the middle of recording, Knowles signed on for Cadillac Records. To research James’ addiction, she spent some time with women staying in a Phoenix House facility in Brooklyn. She had only six days on set in New Jersey to shoot her scenes, so she began rehearsing with Brody before the filming.
“I didn’t anticipate her being as emotionally present and connected with the role as she was,” Brody said. “She had her game on track. I think this meant a lot to her.”
Knowles said that Martin and the other actors made her feel secure enough to delve into James’ demons, allowing her to elevate her work beyond her own expectations. “For the first time, I was able to feel that out-of-body experience in a movie that I feel onstage,” she said. She put on weight — 6.8kg — to match James’ size and added a rougher physicality to her movements; she sings two songs associated with James with confidence and authority.
Cadillac Records takes its share of liberties with the chronology and the details of the Chess era — essentially writing Phil Chess, Leonard’s brother and partner, out of the story — but strong performances (with Jeffrey Wright’s stoic Muddy Waters at the center) capture the label’s innovations and its legacy. As she learned the history of Chess Records — which added amplification and urban sophistication to the Delta blues on recordings by giants like Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and helped to usher in the rock ’n’ roll era with artists including Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley — Knowles said she felt an extra obligation to the project as a musician.
“I realized what an important story it was, especially for my generation,” she said. “We don’t know where rock ’n’ roll came from, we don’t know that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones got their inspiration from people like Muddy Waters and Little Walter.”
Knowles didn’t speak with James — who, at 70, is still touring — until after the film was completed. “She’s just the same, she’s honest and no-nonsense,” Knowles said. “And I know that in some interviews she was like, ‘I don’t know if she can play me.’ But when I met her, she said, ‘You are a bad girl,’ and I know that’s the ultimate compliment from her.”
Things move at perpetually high speed with Knowles; hours after this interview, she was on a plane to London for the MTV Europe Music Awards. Next year, after the album’s marketing campaign is finished, she has a 110-date tour planned, including a week in Las Vegas; a Spanish-language version of the new album; and the release of her first nonsinging role in a movie, the thriller Obsessed. Then there’s her continuing work with her fashion line, House of Dereon, and high-profile endorsements with companies like L’Oreal and Pepsi.
Knowles acknowledged that her husband since April, the rapper and label executive Jay-Z, has been an influence on her growing multimedia empire. “He’s brilliant, and I’m very proud of him, and I’ve learned so much from him,” she said. “But even before I met Jay, I’ve always been in control of my career.”
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