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Beyoncé has been acting for almost as long as she’s been singing. After the debut of Destiny’s Child in 1990, the girl group appeared on shows such as The Famous Jett Jackson and Smart Guy. Even after Beyoncé became a solo artist, she made it a point to book lead roles in major films; her filmography includes the underrated Carmen: A Hip Hopera, The Fighting Temptations, Dreamgirls, and Obsessed. Most recently, the singer lent her voice to Jon Favreau’s live action The Lion King remake as Nala.
I’m a dues-paying member of the Beyhive, but even as a loyal stan, I never could get into Beyoncé the actor. Maybe, I thought, she just didn’t have the range.
Cadillac Records made me eat my words.
The 2008 biographical drama follows the origin story of Leonard Chess, the music executive responsible for putting some of the biggest names in blues music on the map. Played by Oscar-winner Adrien Brody, Chess embarks on a mission to carve out a place for himself in the music industry by signing talented singer and guitarist Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) to his fledgling label. As Waters becomes more popular, Chess Records begins to add to its roster: reckless harmonica player Lil Walter (Columbus Short), tough but fair Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), and the lively Chuck Berry (Mos Def). Despite the success of its lineup, the label needed a feminine touch, and Etta James was its girl.
As a biracial Black woman born into poverty during the Jim Crow era, James’ career was rife with struggle and sorrow. In Cadillac Records, Beyoncé embodies the singer’s experience wholly, carrying the complex trauma of James’ youth from the very moment that she’s introduced to the story. She storms into a hotel room and immediately lies down on the bed, to Chess' dismay. When James learns that the music executive only wants to hear her sing, she's surprised, but not enthused. Never enthused.
As Etta James, Beyoncé allowed herself — for the first time in her storied career — to become undone. Beyoncé’s tenure in music has given her the reputation of being a perfectionist with a killer work ethic (the Beyhive will never forget the “somebody’s getting fired” moment), perfectly coiffed hair, and a bright smile permanently etched on her face. That obsession with perfection stems from feeling like she had to work ten times harder just to get a seat at the table — a burden all Black people, especially Black women, have always shouldered. But in Cadillac Records, her character is messy and complicated, visibly struggling with substance abuse and past pain. To bring the blues singer’s story to life, Beyoncé had to let herself fall apart.
When she’s signed to the label despite the disastrous first impression, Etta has trouble putting her soul behind her sound — a detail that reflects a real performance trauma connected to her upbringing — and label head Chess gets nasty in order to coax the feeling out of her.
“And now, the wedding is over, the rice has been thrown over their heads,” she sings with tear-rimmed eyes after Chess’ provocation, the heartbreak in her voice so raw that Water actually winces behind the glass of the recording studio. “For them, life has just begun, but mine is ending.”
Later, in one of the film’s most poignant moments, Waters and Chess find Etta in her home after she’s overdosed on heroin. Facedown on the carpet, limbs splayed about, the men fear that they’ve lost her. But she’s still there, just barely. As Chess tries to get her to sober up, James floats in and out of consciousness. When she’s lucid, Etta switches between being soft to being downright mean, a mess of complicated emotions fueled by the cocktail of alcohol and drugs still coursing through her system.
Here, the nuanced direction of Darnell Martin shines; what could have been a clichéd take on drug abuse becomes a complex — and in some ways, exploitative — story between two people society says can never be together. The scene is sobering to watch, particularly for fans used to seeing Beyoncé put together. For us, the image of our queen at the end of her rope is striking. She’s acting, of course, but in that moment, the pain feels real. Beyoncé feels real.
Not until the release of her self-titled album in 2013 would we see Beyoncé tap into that kind of naked vulnerability again. Beyoncé featured tracks that looked into the singer’s most personal moments; “Heaven” was a sorrowful tribute to loved ones that had passed away, and “Jealous” details her relationship struggles with rapper Jay-Z. She followed the project up with Lemonade, her most revealing work to date, an album about the trials and tribulations of Black femininity. Finally, Beyoncé was letting us in.
The decision to be more vulnerable could be a delayed side effect of playing Etta. In fact, she said as much to the New York Times in 2008. “The music I made before and after the movie were very different,” she said. “I was a lot more bold and fearless after I played Etta James, because of course some of the character stays with you. Some of the music I would have been afraid to make, I wasn’t.”
Like Beyoncé, James was a high profile Black woman in an industry shaped by misogynoir. When James died of leukemia in 2012, the star shared the impact of the blues singer’s emotional performances on her life.
“Etta James was one of the greatest vocalists of our time,” Beyoncé wrote after the icon’s passing. “I am so fortunate to have met such a queen. Her musical contributions will last a lifetime.”
“Her deeply emotional way of delivering a song told her story with no filter," she continued. "She was fearless, and had guts.”
We owe a lot to James. Yes, she is one of the most important people in blues and rock and roll music (she’s one among a handful of Black women to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), but she also gave us an unexpected, unprecedented gift: Beyoncé’s vulnerable side.