Director Sam-Taylor Johnson has found the perfect performer to play her romantic lead in the adaptation of the hit erotic novel 50 Shades of Grey—someone who embodies sex, competence, power, wealth, and, not least, obsessive control. The enigmatic, sensual self-made CEO Christian Grey will be played by that other enigmatic, sensual, self-made icon, Beyoncé Knowles.
So, okay, not really. Still, having Beyoncé rework her gigantic hit "Crazy in Love" for the 50 Shades trailer is a stroke of genius all the more impressive because "genius" is adamantly not a word that one would normally associate with E.L. James's original series. Poorly written, shapeless, and interminable, clumsily rehashing dangerous-dude romance tropes from The Sheik via Twilight, the novels' success is one of those baffling pop-culture phenomena, like Robin Thicke or (as Beavis and Butthead have pointed out) Tom Petty. There are infinitely better romance novels; I have no doubt there's better Twilight fan fiction. As my wife's aunt said in her brief, devastating five-word review of 50 Shades, "It's not even that dirty."
But while the book may be amateurish, the trailer is anything but. Not that it totally transcends its source material; even in the two-minute snippet we're still treated to groan-worthy lines like "I had a rough start in life; you should steer clear of me." Jamie Dornan (the guy who's playing Christian Grey because they couldn't get Beyoncé) tries to give the pallid prose some weight by pausing significantly before informing us that his tastes are … singular, or telling Anastasia Steele that he'd like … to know more about her. You can't blame him for trying, but the specter of William Shatner high camp hovers ominously.
Still, a campy 50 Shades would be a major improvement on the charmless original, and if Christian Grey is going to spout on and on about how damaged he is, better to have him do so while flashing Dornan's shirtless pecs. Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele manages a nice mix of mousy hesitance and smoldering, aided by leading-lady Hollywood good looks and the absence of the hideously cutesy internal monologue with which E.L. James saddled the character. One could argue that the single best part of the trailer is that Anastasia does not once utter the words "Oh my!"
But obviously the actual best part of the trailer is that Beyoncé is singing on it. "Crazy in Love" gets stripped down; no longer a dance tune, it becomes an ominous, heavy, droning throb. Anastasia calls Christian "intimidating," and Dornan, speaking James's lines, can't really deliver on that description. But Beyoncé is another story. The track is dark and sexy and definitively controlled, all slow windup and passion rising, providing the oomph that you just wouldn't really necessarily get otherwise from the big, banal BDSM reveal. When Beyoncé starts singing, it's almost a howl, presaging Anastasia's orgasmic/masochistic intake of breath at the fade-out where the erotic antics are teased for a split second. And then we get credits with Beyoncé muttering and moaning, elaborating on and extending Anastasia's vocalization, promising more, surely, than the film can deliver.
Earlier this year I said that the 50 Shades film would almost certainly be better than the books. I'll admit I hadn't even thought about the soundtrack—but kudos to Johnson and the marketing folks for doing so. Beyoncé not only gives the trailer gravitas; her persona and presence complicate the books' themes. One of the dreariest things about the novels is the way they ladle tired gender tropes on top of one another. The uber-powerful Christian Grey with his ridiculous wealth and plentiful toys (his private jet shows up in the trailer) is also a kinky control-freak dom, and the excitement comes from having little, insignificant Anna reveal his weak need for love while still getting to enjoy all the perks of his power. Forget Twilight; this is a crasser, less-subtle take on Pretty Woman.
Beyoncé as the third one in the romance, though, scrambles things. Knowles herself, after all, is rich and powerful and not afraid to leverage that in videos like "Partition," which is very 50 Shades-like in its equation of sexiness, wealth, and control. Her presence suggests that a 50 Shade fantasy for women is not just to be with Christian, but to be him—that the rush of the books isn't just to be swept away, but to be the one sweeping. 50 Shades, like any BDSM text, is aware of topping from the bottom, but the trailer makes those possibilities a lot more explicit and a lot more embodied.
Again, Anna's voice, in the throes of passion, actually blurs into the Beyoncé’s voice at the fadeout, as if consummation with Christian means becoming one with Beyoncé, getting tied up to be empowered. So at least for this preview, Johnson really did manage to cast Beyoncé as Christian. The movie still may be quite bad, but credit where it's due—two worthwhile minutes from such inauspicious material is a tour de force.