Back in the ‘80s, when the War on Drugs was defiantly attempting to rid the US of recreational pharmaceuticals by means both laughable (rock star PSAs???) and outrageous (excessive sentencing guidelines for offenders), First Lady Nancy Reagan came up with the lamest of Prohibition era propositions. Administrations before had preached tolerance (Carter) and rehabilitation (Ford), but the new conservative movement believed that brainwashing, followed by incessant rote repetition, was all the nation’s youth needed to stay on the straight and non-narcotic narrow. Of course, the ‘Just Say No” slogan was a monumental failure, about as successful at stopping teen ‘experimentation’ as abstinence policies effect on pre-marital monkeyshines. While it remains a nice sentiment, the psychological and physiological lure of senses numbing solutions – and the resulting addiction – are just too strong.
Don’t think so? Just ask Tinsel Town. Hopelessly dependant on less and less successful cinematic stances like tre-quels, prequels, and comic book/CGI franchises, the constantly jonesing studios are always looking for new and noxious ways of increasing its strung out bottom line. Since box office returns (always up) and critical responses (consistently down) don’t seem to matter, it’s time for a Greed era intervention. Yet this revisit of the ‘Just Say No’ shout out won’t focus on the already dying trends of J-Horror, gorno, or the gross out comedy. It won’t attack the proclivity toward letting Robin Williams make (and therefore, ruin) every project he wants, or the flummoxing decision to abandon two dimensional animation for more computerized monstrosities. No, this version of the no mas mantra is meant to ward the obviously obsessed suits off their new drug of choice – hiring horribly inappropriate musical icons as potential serious actors.
Case in point – Ms. Beyoncé Knowles. Disney has just announced that it wants to go ahead with a big screen version of its Great White Way success (?) Aida. Written by Elton John and Sir Tim Rice (the team behind the ungodly popular Lion King) the recent surge in the movie musicals has spurred the House of Mouse to bring this former classical opera to mainstream audiences everywhere – and yep, they want Ms. Knowles to star in it. Granted, she’s never helmed an entire project by herself – she has always played second fiddle to other above the marquee names – but the individuals who manage Mickey’s monetary kingdom would like to see the chanteuse vamping it up, ancient Egypt style, before the end of 2008.
Now it has to be said that, as a singer/songwriter/symbol, Jay-Z’s main squeeze is mighty fine indeed. Either solo or as part of her girl power ensemble Destiny’s Child, she’s been ‘crazy’, ‘bootylicious’, and a real ‘survivor’. Her combination of glamorous good looks, expert media manipulation, and high profile profitability has made her a formidable music biz commodity. Among the many nameless and lookalike ladies of new millennial soul, Beyoncé is the best. She is culturally compliant, easily embraced by black, white, rich, poor, and capable of generating interest beyond her tween/adolescent demographic. So naturally, the hacks over in Hollywood figured she could become a bankable actress, following in a long line of African American singers turned stars like Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, and…Mariah Carrey???
Granted, those aren’t the mightiest footsteps to fill. Ross does have an Oscar nomination (for Lady Sings the Blues) and Houston has the commercial success (The Bodyguard made big money), but if you match Ms. Knowles against the canon of these formidable divas, she’d only be a single baby step away from Mariah’s unbelievable blunder (the horrendous Glitter). You see, try as she might, Beyoncé is not an actress. She may indeed be some manner of superstar – a debatable reclassification that has more to do with draw and onscreen presence than pure performance chops – but she’s unqualified at carrying a motion picture by herself, or in conjunction with far more accomplished co-stars. In some ways, she’s like a talent vacuum. Individuals who appear alongside her appear to suddenly suffer from the same lack of effectiveness as their multi-platinum participant.
A good starting point for proving this position remains the first project the wannabe thespian ever attempted – a bizarre revamp of the opus Carmen costarring Mekhi Phifer and Mos Def. Relabeled a “Hip Hopera” to draw in the MTV crowd (it was a production of the one time music video channel), this melodramatic mish mosh of rap and rewritten baroque motifs offers a lightweight and lumbering Ms. Knowles. She’s a vixen as void, a seductress as all snarl and very little substance. Since she’s a product of the post-modern music industry, a business model that values looks and appearance over talent and artistry, she can be excused for all her preening and posing. In fact, when she does that in a five minute TRL clip or interview spot, the demographic goes doughy. But in a movie, where there is more to creating a character than shaking your hips and striking a defiant stance, Beyoncé is inert.
Someone, however, thought differently, since it wasn’t long before our half-baked honey was ruining the reputation of blaxpolitation actresses everywhere with her ludicrously awful turn as Foxxy Cleopatra in the Austin Powers tre-quel, Goldmember. Now, the notion that, somehow, Ms. Knowles could match legitimate ghetto goddesses like Tamara Dobson, Teresa Graves, and the biggest, baddest mother of them all, Pam Grier, is laughable. But there she was, horrible afro covering up a lack of gumption and gravitas, trying desperately to be cool and kick ass. Unfortunately, there’s an inherent elegance and overall banal quality that keeps her from being ballsy and bodacious. Instead, Beyoncé frequently comes across as a society matron trying to ‘get down’ with the essential elements of her heritage – and it’s highly embarrassing.
It looked like her equally ineffectual turn in the universally hated Fighting Temptations (she played Lily, a blank as a fart love interest for a slumming Cuba Gooding, Jr.) would finally put a hold on any future acting options for the pop star. Most critics noted that, when she sings, there seems to be some validity to her celluloid status. But ask her to recite dialogue, or express an emotion beyond fashion plate facility and she literally disappears into the entertainment ephemera. Still, for nearly three years, no one considered Ms. Knowles for a leading part. Then, as part of the miserable and misguided Pink Panther remake, she was again forced into the role of romantic lead. Perhaps because she was situated against a decidedly asexual Steve Martin, her lack of onscreen sizzle didn’t matter.
Whatever the case, her performance (or lack thereof) paved the way for what should have been her true breakout success. After all, a woman walking in Diana Ross’ self-righteous shoes would be perfectly typecast as Deena Jones, haughty pop princess of the dynamite ‘70s showstopper Dreamgirls. While many theater fans knew that Effie was the flashier part, the character of Deena has the more substantive narrative impact. The first sign that things weren’t going to play out properly came when rumors started swirling that Beyoncé wanted a powerhouse solo piece on par with the memorable “And I am Telling You (I’m Not Going)”. Even though she was no Jennifer Holiday (who owns the song as part of her Tony winning turn), ex-American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson was supposedly so good, it was making the quintessential Queen of Pop jealous.
The next rift came when the movie was released. Buzz built quickly and convincingly, but somewhere along the line, Ms. Knowles was left out of the hype. Ms. Hudson and their male co-starts were pushed for awards (eventually Jennifer and Eddie Murphy would reap trophies) but the leading lady was – surprise, surprise - left out of the critical discussion. Even when Oscar time arrived, and the Best Song category revealed three Dreamgirls tracks in the running, Beyoncé’s lack of convincing passion proved fatal to the material’s overall chances (the film was shut out by Melissa Etheridge’s A Inconvenient Truth track). Not since Madonna mangled Stephen Sondheim did a singer subvert a talent’s chances of victory. At least Mr. Norbit had a reason for losing out on Academy gold.
Now Disney is betting that, somewhere amongst all the journalistic musings and critical pans, that outside of her rock solid turns on the concert stage, Ms. Knowles has what it takes to play the Ethiopian Princess who finds herself a slave in ancient Egypt. The John/Rice show shifts some of the story to the modern era, and many of the classic convolutions that come with opera have been smoothed out for story stifled contemporary audiences. Yet the role of Aida is the lead, something Beyoncé has never had to take on before, and she will be required to port the entire production on those nicely rounded shoulders of hers. It’s not impossible, and this could be the project that finally helps her find the movie muse, but history indicates a definite disaster in the making.
And here’s the worst part of all of this – Beyoncé was never meant to be an actress. She’s been forced into it by a media machine that wants as much cross promotion and multifaceted marketing opportunities as possible. Making matters worse, she is taking away roles from far more talented (and much less noteworthy, unfortunately) women of color. In an arena where roles for minorities are metered out like rations on a lifeboat, to have one uniquely talentless performer monopolizing the discussion is harmful to any real advances. Those who scoff at such suggestions are merely fans, incapable of seeing beyond Beyoncé’s music video iconography. Place her against Angela Bassett or Jada Pinkett Smith and there’s really no comparison. Still, the weak minded over at Uncle Walt’s world are gambling that more audience members buy Ms. Knowles publicity than her paltry silver screen talents.
This is why Disney should just say NO! Since Aida has no real name value beyond the cultured and considered (the musical closed in 2004 after a 1,852 performance run) it will be interesting to see how they sell it. Obviously, the former child of destiny will be a big part of the push, and when the rest of the casting is announced, another bombardment of big names will hit the headlines. But if the House of Mouse learned anything from its pro-PC production of Cinderella (featuring Ms. Knowles Jr. in the form of all but forgotten R&B brat Brandy), it should be that musicians can mess up even the most well intentioned productions. While they may be able to sell a song, they can’t be guaranteed to provide a performance. This ongoing addiction is not doing anyone any good.
// Notes from the Road
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