Movie Review: Cadillac Records
As soon as holiday feel-good movies start appearing in theaters I become flooded with a rushed anxiety about procuring Christmas presents, spending time with family, and other standard holiday stress. Last night I caught a matinee showing of Cadillac Records and left the theater impressed by the music and acting, but with more on my to-do list than when I arrived. The film, a sex, drug, and race issue-filled journey through blues and early rock n’ roll, was jumpy, historically questionable, and left me with the need to spend at least an hour online researching the many characters whose true identities seemed obscured by the director’s need to cram as much drama as possible into the one hour and 47 minute run time. Written and directed by Darnell Martin (I Like It Like That, Prison Song), Cadillac Records features fantastic performances by the majority of the cast, familiar toe-tapping music, and scenes set in smoky nightclubs that made me feel like I was ready to get up there and sing some blues. In spite of its often episodic and unreasonably vague storyline, it’s an enjoyable evening at the cinema and a rare chance to see great black stories on film.
Cadillac Records tells the story of Chess Records, a small South Side Chicago recording studio that was the hub of blues and early rock n’ roll from the late forties to late sixties. Leonard Chess, a Polish immigrant and founder of Chess Records, was played capably by Adrien Brody. Chess was a man who did everything he could to bridge the gap between the races, although it is left to question whether he paid his artists properly. If you know anything about the early music industry it’s that Jewish producers fleeced black artists of royalties and ownership, paying them just enough that they could continue “the high life” of booze, women, that ‘hay-ron’, and a Cadillac here and there, a payment scheme from which the film gets its title. After first signing the father of blues Muddy Waters, Chess made stars of Little Walter (Columbus Short), Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles). When I say that all of these actors did their thing in Cadillac Records, especially with the added task of doing their own singing, I really mean they did their thing.
As expected, Wright’s portrayal of Muddy Waters was so seamless that I forgot he was even acting. Columbus Short (This Christmas, Stomp The Yard) stole every single one of his scenes and was so tragic and convincing that I barely recognized him from his earlier, lighter outings. I know Eamonn Walker best as Said from Oz and other ‘square’ characters, so he really shone as the looming, straight-offa-the-plantation Howlin’ Wolf. Mos Def is one of my favorite people (I even watched and enjoyed the rather ridiculous Be Kind Rewind co-starring Jack Black), and as usual I found him adorable and genuine. Mos as the man who invented rock n’ roll was a fun and humorous nugget without dismissing the gravity of Berry’s contribution to history. Cedric The Entertainer is another personal favorite of mine, but he was miscast as songwriter Willie Dixon, a role that wasn’t supposed to be funny at all but since Ced can’t help himself the character ended up slightly muddy. And then there was wig-rockin’, twenty-extra-pounds-in-her-hips, trying oh-so-hard Beyonce.
Let me first say, it’s really unfortunate that Hollywood looks for female beauty first and female acting skills second. Gabrielle Union, who portrayed Muddy Waters’ exhausted wife, may be so pretty that she lacks the ability to look sad, which made many of her scenes, especially those addressing Muddy’s womanizing ways, pretty painful. That said, Beyonce surprised me by holding her own in this film, I’m just not sure if the Academy will be sufficiently fooled by all of this Oscar talk to nominate her for a movie as non-stellar as Cadillac Records. We all know how Hollywood works – the more times “Oscar” and “Beyonce” are said in the same sentence, the more likely it is that she’ll actually get one. To her credit, Adrien Brody and Beyonce had the same kind of on-screen chemistry that helped earn Halle Berry an Oscar for Monster’s Ball, one for which she couldn’t help but thank Billy Bob Thornton. And Gwyneth Paltrow has an Oscar, why can’t Bey get one? It also seems that Darnell Martin misused the energy that should have gone toward ironing out some of the sketchier details of the plot to craft scenes for Beyonce that would hide her naturally poor acting. The Etta James of Cadillac Records was all drama, drinkin’, and drugs; Beyonce is way better off playing it sassy, distraught, and out of control than she is playing the diva (i.e. herself). Thanks to clever scene choices, we are spared Beyonce’s clumsy diction and hip-swinging for most of the film, and she nails a few of James’ classics in the studio scenes. Don’t let the fact that she usually stinks it up keep you from seeing Cadillac Records!
It’s a real shame that Cadillac Records suffers from problems that the director should have solved; it is the cast and the music that carries this movie from start to finish. Cadillac Records draws on the black experience in America to tell me a bunch of stuff I already know – the blues came straight outta share-croppin’ Mississippi, white record producers got rich off of the talents of black performers, and there was a whole lot of racism floating around in the 1950’s. There are plenty of people underneath rocks who don’t realize that the Rolling Stones were NOT the founders of rock music and don’t know the story of the original bluesmen. Those of us in the know will cry “Overkill!” at the film’s belabored points that fame destroys the soul and that black folks had it rough. If you love the blues or early rock and roll, Cadillac Records will have you Googling every single artist featured in the film in search of the facts behind the sketchy history that Martin presents and of course, in search of more music. The bottom line, however, is that the focus on a time period in black American history always makes me feel warm and fuzzy, so I’d rather have any than none at all.
Score: Black folks and underrated actors getting the chance to shine in a holiday vehicle never hurt nobody, and I left with a new appreciation for blues and early rock n’ roll. As much as I wish Cadillac Records was more focused as a film, at least I learned some black history (albeit from a post-theater YouTube/Wikipedia binge). The ticket was $9 and even though we’re in a recession this is a positive black movie we’re talking about here, so it was well worth it. If nothing else, go see it to counteract the upcoming Madea Goes To Jail. Cadillac Records is even mild enough to see with your parents, who will probably start talking about the good old days after the show, so make it bonding time! If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the trailer below.