On a brisk March day in Rahway, N.J., Beyoncé and Adrien Brody are filming a crucial scene for their upcoming movie “Cadillac Records.” The set is an old Ukranian social club that has been converted into a 1950s production studio, complete with vintage instruments and cream, perforated walls. Musicians, dressed in porkpie hats and carrying rusted saxophones, mill around the room atop a grey and rose pink tiled floor.
Dressed in an off-the-shoulder blue brocade dress, teal earrings, long black eyelashes and a frosted blonde wig, Beyoncé is channeling the fiery Etta James. Brody is playing Chess Records founder Leonard Chess in the film based on the ’50s blues label that released such greats as James and Muddy Waters. Beyoncé, as James, is about to perform “I’d Rather Go Blind” with her band when Brody, as Chess, interrupts. Rumor has it that Chess and James had a romantic relationship that never flowered because of circumstance, and Brody and Beyoncé are doing a good job of depicting that sexual tension.
“Cadillac Records” hits theaters Dec. 5, two weeks after Beyoncé’s double-album “I Am . . . Sasha Fierce” from Music World/Columbia Records hits shelves Nov. 18. It will be the singer’s third solo album and the first since she adopted a bit of James’ classic flair. “Doing ‘Cadillac Records,’ I realized that Etta James was so unapologetic, bold and strong that playing her was a big risk for me,” Beyoncé says. “It gave me the confidence and the push to challenge myself a little more with my music.”
ICON IN THE WORKS
It’s a good time for Beyoncé to be brave. On “I Am . . . Sasha Fierce,” the singer capitalizes on her established R&B fan base while stretching her pop music wings with radio-friendly tracks that she describes as “timeless.”
“I think we’ll sell 750,000 to 1 million copies [in the] first week,” says Music World head Mathew Knowles, Beyoncé’s father and manager. “I know that’s ambitious with the declining market, but Beyoncé is so focused on transitioning from pop star to icon that we’re paying attention to every single detail.”
It’s a weighty word, icon—but Beyoncé is laying the groundwork to expand beyond being a commonplace superstar. Standard and deluxe versions of the album will reach stores Nov. 18. The standard disc has 11 songs and the deluxe edition includes five additional songs along with the videos for the set’s first two singles, the guitar-led “If I Were a Boy” and the bouncy “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).”
“I want to be an icon,” Beyoncé says. “That’s why this is a double-album. One side has songs that are more mainstream and another has my more traditional R&B songs for my fans who’ve been there the whole time. Some of it sounds like Barbra Streisand, Karen Carpenter and the Beatles around the 1970s.”
The singer worked with everyone from the Neptunes to Danjahandz and after recording around 75 tracks, she chose 16. In the end, the two CDs, “I Am . . . ” and “Sasha Fierce,” couldn’t be more different. The “I Am . . . ” tracks collectively sound airy and primed for top 40 radio. The songs—like “Halo,” which is likely the second single from “I Am . . . “—cover relatable themes like finding strength in one’s significant other. Such songwriters as Toby Gad, Amanda Ghost and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds deliver solid, well-written mainstream tracks.
“Sasha Fierce,” by contrast, unabashedly reaches back to Beyoncé’s roots in sassy R&B and even plucks production from Lil Wayne’s beat miners Jim Jonsin and Bangladesh, who produced the rapper’s “Lollipop” and “A Milli,” respectively. “Diva” sports Bangladesh’s staccato drums as Beyoncé explains that a “diva is a female version of a hustler.” For “Video Phone,” Knowles says the song may foreshadow an endorsement deal with an undisclosed device manufacturer in 2009.
In April Beyoncé and Jay-Z wed in a secret ceremony in New York. Neither confirmed their marriage until recently and now, Beyoncé says that her husband will not appear on “I Am . . . Sasha Fierce.” “I have no collaborations on this record,” she says.
EXPOSING ‘SASHA’ TO THE PUBLIC
The release of “I Am . . . Sasha Fierce” is bolstered by the Dec. 2 debut of the “Cadillac Records” soundtrack on Sony BMG; it includes Beyoncé’s rendition of James’ signature song “At Last.”
“Our campaigns aren’t just focused on her music,” Baker says. “With ‘Cadillac Records’ coming in December and the soundtrack on Dec. 2, we’ll be working with the film company to make sure everything will be tight.”
Following “Cadillac Records,” Beyoncé will star in the Screen Gems thriller “Obsessed,” which hits theaters in February 2009. She is cast as the wife of a man—played by Idris Elba of “The Wire”—who’s stalked by his co-worker.
Still, it’s her performance in “Cadillac Records” that most impresses Beyoncé’s camp. “People will be most surprised that the glamorous Beyoncé allowed herself to be seen in the desperate straits that Etta went through, including her heroin addiction,” says Sony BMG Music Entertainment chairman Andrew Lack, who produced “Cadillac Records” with Sony BMG Films executive VP Sophia Sondervan. “That’s a Beyoncé I don’t think anyone’s seen yet.”
Even the singer jokes that some people at Columbia weren’t ready for her growth as an actress in the movie and wondered aloud if her depiction of James’ substance-abuse struggles was appropriate.
“They’re like, ‘I’m not sure if people need to see you with a needle in your arm around the time of your record’s release,’ ” Beyoncé recalls. “But, I’m obviously playing a character and I felt that story needed to be told. It gave me an opportunity to challenge myself and show, even myself, what I can do as an actor. I’ve never been so proud of something I’ve done.”