Cadillac Records is Beyoncé's fifth or sixth stint as an actress (depending on whether or not you count an uncredited, unconfirmed role as "Girl #1" in a flick called Beverly Hood, the "worst movie ever.") And in a theater on Friday night, I found her performance to be a pleasant surprise. Unlike The Pink Panther and Austin Powers In Goldmember, Cadillac Records is actually good. And unlike Dreamgirls, Beyoncé is not competing in a belt-it-out-athon with other women in this movie. She's surrounded by talent, and although she sings, it's her acting which actually shines.
Playing troubled recording artist Etta James, Beyoncé is a spitfire. She scowls, she swears, she smolders, she lays bare a broken, needy soul. Writes Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman: "Beyoncé Knowles… just about burns a hole in the screen with her sultry torment." And, A.O. Scott wrote for the NY Times:
Ms. Knowles’s interpretations of Ms. James’s hits — "At Last" and "I'd Rather Go Blind," in particular — are downright revelatory. And so, it should be said, is Ms. Knowles’s performance. In her previous film roles she has seemed guarded and tentative, as if worried that her charisma would melt from too much emotional heat. Here, playing a needy, angry, ferociously talented and fantastically undisciplined woman, she is as volcanic and voluptuous as an Italian movie star. Or, more to the point, a real soul diva of the old school."
Unfortunately, while Cadillac Records is a good movie, it's not a great movie. The plot hangs together loosely, the historical inaccuracies abound — including the fact that Adrien Brody's character, Leonard Chess, founder of Chess records, had a brother. But if folks get educated about the birth of rock n' roll (did you know that Chuck Berry sued the Beach Boys and Willie Dixon sued Led Zeppelin for stealing melodies?) while Beyoncé flexes her very real skills as a thespian, then where's the harm? Seeing her play Etta James definitely piqued interest to see what Ms. Knowles could do in a meaty, non-singing part. As Gleiberman writes: "Now will someone give this lady a great lead role?"