21 July 2009

Cadillac Records

Cadillac Records is an interesting and entertaining film by writer-director Darnell Martin that chronicles the rise and fall of Chess Records. The story is told in broad strokes, naturally, compressing about twenty years and a dozen personalities into a few hours. It suffers from the sweeping, superficial nature of all biopics, but Ms. Martin deserves credit for a colorful, vibrant, and stylish take on this fascinating slice of musical history. Adrien Brody plays Leonard Chess, the enterprising and ambitious immigrant who founded the company with his brother Phil in the 1940s. Mr. Brody never seems fully comfortable in Chess' skin, and he remains a bit of an enigma throughout the movie. Not so with Jeffrey Wright, who grows scene by scene into his role as the great Muddy Waters. It's not a performance that grabs you, rather, by the end of the movie, you come to believe that Mr. Wright is Mr. Waters. An impressive feat, but helped maybe by the fact that we have so much more of Muddy to work with. After all, Chess was a "behind-the-scenes" kind of guy, and what he was "really like" might be lost to history's dustbin. Cedric the Entertainer certainly looks the part of the massive Willie Dixon, but he's wasted in a silly narrator's role. The voice-over historical perspective is superfluous--that stuff should be saved for documentaries. Mos Def inhabits the role of Chuck Berry, who probably should get his own film, and Eamonn Walker gives us an intriguing Howlin' Wolf. Too many characters, not enough time! The film really picks up steam in the second half, though, with the arrival of contemporary R & B superstar Beyoncé Knowles as Etta James. I knew two things about Ms. Knowles before this film: 1) she's gorgeous, and 2) people like her singing. I figured she was just another pop diva, but I found out she can not only act but that she can really sing. Covering Etta James is like batting behind Barry Bonds, but Beyoncé takes on a James standard, "At Last," and does it beautifully. She's got a real voice, rich and velvety and powerful, and her "At Last" is not only the most moving but also the most impressive performance in the film. She also tries her hand at "I'd Rather Go Blind," a masterpiece that is probably impossible to improve on, and does damn well. It's a bit over-the-top, with a lot of breathy vibrato and over-long notes, but the movie seems to demand some melodrama at that point as we see Leonard Chess walking away from the business he built. If you know nothing of the history of American popular music, Cadillac Records is not a bad place to start. If you like what you see, check out the Chess Records 50th Anniversary Collection Series from MCA (CD), and The American Folk Blues Festival Series (DVD) from Reelin' in the Years.

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