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Movie Review: Cadillac Records

7 December 2008 18 Comments

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.

18 Comments »

  • Kellybelle said:

    I agree with everything you said–except Beyonce (but more on that later.)

    Ultimately, I think I wanted it to be more of OUR story. (I’m not shouting, I just don’t know how to do italics in the comment section.) Like you, I came home and researched Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. They had marriages that survived the music business and the blues! Wouldn’t it have been great to tell the story from the point of the two of them coming back for Little Walter’s funeral?

    Columbus Short gave me a “Kandhi Alexander” moment–remember she was the hoochie in “CB4” then acted her arse of in “The Corner”? That’s how I felt about Columbus: who knew?

    Now…Beyonce. No. I don’t mean that in a mean way. Just no. What heroin addicts smile that much after they come out of an overdose?
    And while it does take a certain amount of skill to say “motherf*****” convincingly (remember,Janet couldn’t do it in “Poetic Justice”), Etta was so much more. Can you imagine how a (very)Jennifer Lewis would have played her? Or how somebody of the caliber of Sissy Spacek in “Coal Miner’s Daughter 😉 would have turned it out? That young Black actress is out there–toiling away in off-off Braodway, honing her craft, day-gigging it in Starbucks–but we missedher star making turn because Beyonce is…well, Beyonce.

    I rant because I love.

  • Kellybelle said:

    that should be “acted her arse off” and “a (very) young Jennifer Lewis.” my bad.

  • Thembi said:

    KellyBelle,
    You are sooo right about Beyonce. If you can’t tell, I’ve given up on her existence. I wish she’d go away but Ive accepted that she won’t. Someone else definitely would have done better many times over – but then Cadillac Records wouldn’t have a chance at being a holiday blockbuster…

    I wonder what Etta James thinks…

  • NaturallyAlise said:

    I probably won’t check out the movie until it hits DVD, but that’s just because I am music industry biopic-ed out, and if I must watch one, let it be Five Heartbeats at my house with a bottle of wine in my PJ’s, :-)….

  • Kjen said:

    At first, I was dead set against seeing Cadillac Records. But after I learned that it was an enesemble movie and not a star vehicle for Bey I’m pretty sure I’m going to go see it cuz it’s the holidays and why shouldn’t I go zone out in front of a Black movie. ;p

  • SkeptikOne said:

    Despite your review and recommendation to go see it, I am conflicted. I’m not going to lie, I don’t consider “Bey” a singer or an actor. She does entertain, however.

    But I have loved Etta since I discovered music and I’m having trouble with this particular characterization of her. Beyonce is a shadow of a woman. Etta is the real deal. I literally stole “At Last” from my mother when I was ten, after hearing her play it in 45 form. I still have that record.

    I have also had the privilege of knowing Muddy Waters. He has ties to my city. Yet as much as I love me some Jeffrey Wright, I think maybe I might by pass this one. Or at least wait until it’s raining outside and I’ve got the dvd..

  • pjazzypar said:

    I liked the movie a lot. In fact I would venture to say it was the best $2.50 I ever spent. People who have not seen the film think it is about Etta James or Beyonce has a bigger role in the film than she does. I too thought that Jill Scott would have made a much better Etta, but then again Beyonce was the executive producer of the film, so of course she was going to throw herself a bone :-)

    Mainly the film took me back to an era that paved the way for current musicians that able to make the vast fortunes that eluded the pioneers of the genre. I, of course am not a film critic but I know what I like and I really enjoyed this one.

  • TalentedTenth said:

    jeffrey wright was outstanding in this movie as was columbus short. beyonce…not so much. her best part was when she was sprawled out on the floor in her house. other than that, i wasn’t really convinced…especially with the singing. i feel that any role where she has to portray another singer, too much of her as beyonce comes through to make her unbelievable.

    and man…eammon walker put on MASS weight for this role. but i loved him as wolf!

  • Acai Berry said:

    I agree with everything you said–except Beyonce

  • Reginald Dorsey said:

    I'm ashamed of the fact that I wasn't up on Little Walter already. It took hearing a Columbus Short interview on the radio last week to make me download (sorry Little-Walter's-Estate :<) a Little Walter Comp. I was sort of up on Muddy Waters already. At least some of his stuff from before he migrated to Chicago that was recorded on his porch by Alan Lomax. Etta James seems like a really nice lady in all those VH-1 Soul/BBC documentaries on Soul Music they've been showing for the last year. I hit up allmusic.com for her discography and downloaded all her 5 star albums.

    Between this and Role Models I'm going to have to movie hop this weekend like I used to do on half days at the Cheltenham movie theater (where I also would smuggle in a hoagie.)

  • A.Smith said:

    Haven’t seen the movie, so my comment span is limited…

    back when they first started buzzing this movie up by trying to convince us Beyonce was the star of a new movie about Etta James (I still remember that, because I was VERY concerned) anyway, in an interview, Ms. James said she was worried Beyonce couldn’t do it and we all know… rightfully so. I bet’cha that took a LOT of convincing, because my girl can perform but from what I’ve seen thus far, she.cannot.act. and that’s just all there is to that. I’m ONLY going to see Cadillac Records because it’s been officially said she’s not in that much of the movie.

    I likes (yes, likes) to give credit where it is due, and Beyonce has done NOTHING to suggest she’ll ever be Oscar worthy. 2 years ago her goal was to have an Oscar, Tony and Grammy by the time she was 30. She’s singing a very different tune these days… I say rack up the Grammy’s boo boo because that’s where you absolutely shine.

  • Dara said:

    etta james got me through my cliche little-freshman-in-at-a-big-university undergrad days. and i cant imagine any kind of beyonce doing her even an ounce of justice…but im still excited to see the movie between mos and the basquiet dude, im set.

  • Anonymous said:

    Did the reviewer of this film really just compare Beyonces acting to Halle Berrys or Gwenyth Paltrows? Really? Did they really just ask “if Gwenyth can have an Oscar, why cant Beyonce”? Maybe because Beyonce isn’t on that level? I think Beyonce is a good entertainer, but thats about it. Unlike some, I have no problem with her trying to work on her acting skills..however, I think it is disrespectful for some singers to think that if they just ‘get through’ a role, that winning an Oscar is that easy as to just say you want one..especially when you’re black in that industry. And I think it is just as embarrasing for some people (Beyonces fans) to desperatly suggest that she is on the level of seasoned actors. If she has improved from her last movie, that is good..but while I like some of her music and enjoy some of her on stage performances…I am not going to give someone more credit then what it is worth simply because they have ‘improved’ from their last film or simply went above expectations (when expectations were already set at a low bar).

    When singers try to cross over to acting, you can usually tell which ones are natural and which ones aren’t. Beyonce is not a natural actress. I think that she just is what she is. There are some actors that have been and will continue to be Oscar worthy depending on what type of movies they do (Denzel, Will Smith, Halle, Forest Whitikar and so on) and there are some black actors that are decent actors but just wont reach that level…in Beyonces case, she is a talented entertainer that is trying to be a good actress. Thats about it. Angela Bassett doesn’t even have an Oscar yet and Beyonce has the nerve to walk around letting the word OSCAR slip off her tounge. It be different if Beyonce was just acting for the love of it, but something about Beyonce comes off as her acting just to try to add something to her resume..and it doesn’t come off as being passionate for the art of acting..but just being greedy. There are too many black actors that go unnoticed in that business to continue to waste roles on people that can act just ‘good enough’. The real person that needs to be talking about Oscar isn’t even talking about it…Jeffrey Write, now thats a man that always delivers great performances.

  • Reginald Dorsey said:

    Sidenote: How is Beyonce not totally exhausted yet? She hasn’t spent more than 6 months out of the public eye in almost 11 years. She has to have the highest level of overall music and acting-related income of any Black performer other than Michael Jackson. Like, yo, sit down somewhere and chill out for 2 or 3 years. Or maybe her plan is to Mu Psi Mu, milk it, milk it, milk it, until mofos be like “fuck outta here, already!” at which point she’ll give up, have some half camel, half human babies, and morph into Ms. Tina, like we all know she will.

  • Thembi said:

    @Anonymous
    Let’s be clear. I did compare Beyonce to Paltrow and Berry because I dont think either one of them can act either. I think that the Academy and the way it tosses out awards is pure crap, and youre certainly new here if you don’t know that yet. That said, when leaving comments, in order to not sound quite so rude, address them to me, the reviewer of the film, not to the masses. This blog is called what would thembi do, not what would anonymous do. You do not have the mic.

  • MUST LOVE MOVIES said:

    umh hmm not much more needs to be said. lol
    very very common consensus

  • Hampton06 said:

    thembi, i miss ya! i haven’t been on in a minute. teaching for the first time this semester and facebook ate me alive. i just got back from seeing ‘cadillac…’ and have been googling everything about the film. i may actually blog (i’m rusty). i am teaching a class next semester on film and its impact on culture. i would love to have come do one of the panels. holla!

  • Odds & Ends | What Would Thembi Do? said:

    […] period, and no one is ever going to sing it quite like her. I was one of the fifteen people who saw Cadillac Records in the theater, and while Beyonce’s rendition of the song was one of the best parts of the […]

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