December 5, 2008

Beyoncé awakens her earthy side in 'Cadillac Records'

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In the new film "Cadillac Records," which tells the story of the pioneering Chicago blues label Chess Records, Beyoncé 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&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.

Knowles says that when she read the script: "I said, 'I have to do this movie,' but I was terrified. Was I really ready?"

The singer's 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," released last month.

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 Beyoncé threw the glamour out the window so easily and so joyfully, and embraced the unattractiveness of being strung out," says Darnell Martin, the writer and director of the film, which opens Friday. Though the role was written with Knowles in mind, Martin says he 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," he says. "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 Beyoncé who strides into an interview, talking quickly and smiling broadly.

Her new 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.

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 says. "She had her game on track. I think this meant a lot to her."

Knowles says 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 says. She put on weight — 15 pounds — 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 who included 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 says. "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 says. "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."

"Cadillac Records"

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  • Opening: Friday

  • Rating: R (for pervasive language and some sexuality).

  • Cast: Adrien Brody, Beyoncé, Jeffrey Wright, Gabrielle Union, Mos Def and Cedric the Entertainer.

  • Director-writer: Darnell Martin


Source: Mercury News

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