Beyoncé & cinema

Having a Halloween costume is absolutely mandatory, however old, rich or motivated you are, and putting on a weird hat just won’t do. Even celebrities play along, for a result all the more impressive that they have the funds to back it up, and if their budget is proportional to their level of fame, it’s a definite step up from stinking fake rubber witch noses.bey1

To each Halloween their own share of celebrities playing dress-up at fancy parties with extravagant make-up and outfits, a game Heidi Klum wins more often than not. It’s an effective and fun wink to their various fans, a reminder that singers, actors & all are human beings too, who party, have a sense of humor and share common references with their public – without ever stopping staging themselves, of course. In 2015, Heidi Klum left once more a lasting impression as Jessica Rabbit; but she wasn’t the only one channeling iconic movie characters. Beyoncé morphed into not only one, but two movie protagonists: the mutant who manipulates the weather in a superhero franchise and the queen of the fictional country home to Eddie Murphy in a John Landis comedy. As a matter of fact, cinema holds a greater influence on the songstress than you might think…

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The obvious link is her acting career. Since 2009 she has only been providing her voice to movies, but the beginning of the millenium saw her playing different parts, often that of a singer, in mostly passable flicks. Among others : an adaptation of Carmen with hip-hop and Wyclef Jean, an installment of Austin Powers and a tacky remake of The Pink Panther. Dreamgirls was a breakout role for Jennifer Hudson only, Cadillac Records was everything but a hit. She’s expected to play Judy Garland’s part in a promising remake of the classic A Star is Born… But the project has been in the works for years (though the rumor has it that it’s found a director in Bradley Cooper).

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Rather than devoting herself to other people’s projects, Beyoncé now applies the same principle that served her music career so well: if you want a thing done right, do it yourself. For Bang Bang, a short movie shot to accompany her and her husband Jay Z’s On the Run Tour, they hire all of their actor friends and an artsy, Nouvelle Vague loving director. He films them with old Russian lenses, stages them as a fugitive and sexy couple of outlaws and sprinkles the scenes with cult references. Peckinpah, True Romance, Breathless… And, of course, Bonnie & Clyde. In her first album, the singer dedicated one song to the famous vintage criminal lovebirds, with a music video that already is a modernized tribute to their twisted myth. Ten years later, Beyoncé expressly mirrors Faye Dunaway’s style as Bonnie.

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This short movie is as much an accolade to iconic movies as to the couple’s success (not the gangster one, the celebrity one). It makes for the culmination of the affinity between Beyoncé’s music career and cinematic representation and it wraps up a decade of strong and stronger investments in the visual aspect of her work. Let’s rewind : most Destiny’s Child music videos have become more or less emblematic, but they were set in the context of the 90’s MTV culture and esthetics, ripe with RnB hits. Choreographies far more elaborate than the production, quick cut editing, fanciful and matching outfits: without a doubt, this was an early 2000’s girl group.

Beyoncé’s solo video debut follows this example. Direction is only a matter of highlighting her dancing, which on its own is more than enough to leave a lasting impression (who’s to ever forget Crazy in Love‘s cleavage lick?), but also sometimes is hard to distinguish from a commercial or from numerous rival efforts. Green Light, Me Myself and I, Upgrade U… Even her duet with Shakira, Beautiful Liar, is kind of disappointing: it’s far duller than what we were entitled to expect, since it only relies on making the two singers dance in a fog and join forces only in the last minute and be lookalikes. Cinematic references then are literal, linked with business deals: Destiny’s Child are on Charlie’s Angels’ soundtrack, so scenes from the movie are embed into the Independant Women video; Beyoncé has a role in Austin Powers and The Pink Panther, so Work it out and Check on it become crossover products, twice promotional, blending movie extracts and original content.

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But there can’t be no pop music domination without resorting to standout representation, and some videos already manifest a particular attention to detail that made them just as memorable as Crazy in Love. The risqué combo of Baby Boy and Naughty Girl (notice in the latter a reenactment of The Band Wagon‘s most famous scene, with Beyoncé and Usher echoing Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s steps), a Basic Instinct-like setting in the anxiety-inducing Ring the Alarm… The influential director Melina Matsoukas supervised the black and white Suga Mama and the awesome Why don’t you love me, retro homage to pinups from Bettie Page to Rosie the Riveter. And, in 2008, Beyoncé launched with Jake Nava the legendary, multi-parodied, universally and instantly identifiable Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it), which prompted countless attempts to reproduce its Bob Fosse-inspired choreography with a varying degree of drunkenness and success. Two years later, with Lady Gaga, the queen of event music videos, Beyoncé appears in Telephone. This real short movie of almost 10 minutes directed by Jonas Åkerlund is a succession of exhilarating sequences, all pulp and pop, with a heroine out of prison and a vengeful murder worthy of a Tarantino movie. Now cult, the video asserted the two singers’ place at the firmament of pop culture.

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Since 2009, when Beyoncé co-directed Ego, her input in the visual dimension of her career has only grown. She co-directs five videos for her fourth album, 4, in 2011. Among them, the experimental 1+1, whose atmosphere and concept (a woman’s bust scrutinized over a black background, with various visual effects) conjures up a cursed 60’s french arthouse movie Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (L’Enfer). Besides, Run the World (Girls) uses the tropes of dystopian movies, Dance for you those of films noirs… But after so many references and nods, Beyoncé crosses the lines into plagiarism. She and Adria Petty supervise Countdown, a dance-oriented video with a 60’s, pop art and mod atmosphere, the singer wearing the same outfit and hairdo as Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. Except a part of the choreography strongly looks like Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker’s work… One controversy later, the song gets an alternate video. The contemporary dance choreographer, far from getting upset, amusingly notices she and Beyoncé both were pregnant while shooting their respective videos and wonders why her work hasn’t gone mainstream before.

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The singer now devotes herself to video with more diligence than ever. While the music industry fights against a collapse and the traditional record single system is in decline, she surprises everyone in December 2013 when she releases, digitally only and without any advertisement, an album in which each song has a visual illustration. Of course you can only listen to the music, but the music goes hand in hand with pictures, and the listening experience is conceived to be enriched by the viewing of this series of short movies. They echo one another though they formally differ a lot, each director having left their mark to the music video(s) they supervised, all this in order to paint the nuanced portrait of a multi-faceted artist who is also a mother (Heaven, Blue), a lover (Blow, Partition, Rocket), a happy (Drunk in Love, XO) though possessive wife (Jealous, Mine)… Ultimately, a woman who acknowledges both her fears and her triumph (Ghost/Haunted, Flawless). Vibrant colors or sleek minimalism, realistic story or staged fantasy, family vacation home movie or burlesque dance routine at the Crazy Horse cabaret… So many different worlds conjured in as many videos, colliding on the screen to extend the experience of the listener and enhance the image of a public figure. Mastering the codes of audio-visual performances evidently helped Beyoncé get as impressive a career and reach the superstatus she has today, all the while allowing her to deepen and expand her message. This also is an opportunity to see her in a different light, one she controls to regain her own identity and exist beyond business deals, contractual obligations and advertisement: probably the intention behind 7/11, her most laid-back and funny video to this day, which she casually filmed herself in a hotel room… and now Formation, her latest video, more political than ever before.

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