‘Cadillac Records’ has the right spin
December 18, 2008
Chess Records, home of the Chicago blues, gets a low-down, sweat-soaked, smoke-filled and sometimes bloody valentine of a movie memorial in writer-director Darnell Martin’s “Cadillac Records.”
It’s not the most incisive or even focused show-biz history flick, but the music is great, the performances delightful. Plus, it’s a fascinating story ” one of greed, moral turpitude, exploitation and, seriously, love, for both a sound that changed the world and the flawed people who created it.
An eclectic cast proves adept at re-creating both the larger-than-myth personalities that haunted the Southside recording studio in the 1950s and the giants’ singing voices.
We might expect such vocal expertise from Beyonce Knowles as an angry, addicted young Etta James and Mos Def as the exuberant, barrier-busting Chuck Berry. Jeffrey Wright’s all-around stage experience and young Columbus Short’s dance background logically inform the amplified guitar/harp assault as well as the charged relationship they combine to make as ” respectively ” a smoldering, emotionally complex Muddy Waters and the violent, proudly self-destructive Little Walter.
The largest musical surprise, though, comes from “Oz’s” big man, British actor Eamonn Walker, as a sonically ferocious Howlin’ Wolf. He leaves no doubt as to how the war veteran and former disc jockey earned his lycanthropic stage name; his broad-shouldered animosity toward Wright’s Waters can reach scarily werewolf levels, too.
Adrien Brody is effective as Leonard Chess, the Polish immigrant who was encouraging and somewhat untrustworthy as he turned his African-American performers into a constellation of stars by any means necessary. He’s the type of guy who’ll gift hit record makers with the flashiest, latest model Caddies (hence the film’s title), then stiff them on royalties months or years later for the amounts of the cars’ MSRPs.
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The movie downplays the contributions of Leonard’s brother and partner Phil ” if he even appeared, it must have been when I was blinking ” but that helps Martin put the film’s focus where it belongs: not only on Leonard’s relationships with his artists but on their own lives and travails as well.
So we get more than enough hints of the racism they faced (including, in Walter’s case, the brutal result of his insane taunting by some white Chicago cops), their domestic arrangements (Gabrielle Union lends long-suffering support ” in several senses of the word ” as the nurse who loves promiscuous Muddy and surrogate mothers Little Walter), and the personal traumas that fueled their work. Beyonce’s Etta enters the scene late, but has enough diva moments to fuel a dozen “Dreamgirls.”
I can’t say how accurate all of this is, but hats off to Martin for maintaining a serious patina while moving the story swiftly and sensually along. “Cadillac Records” seems to cover, however superficially at times, everything that went into making the electric blues and everything ” like rock and soul and that fleeting but sure sense of purposeful accomplishment ” that could be gotten out of it.