"At Last," this movie is over. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but Judge Tamika Adair prefers the real thing.
Our review of Cadillac Records (Blu-Ray), published March 19th, 2009, is also available.
"You and me not gonna wake up every morning and get everything we want. Mostly we got to take what come. And half the time, that's gonna be a bunch of bullshit."—Muddy Waters in Cadillac Records
I don't know much about the blues. But what I did find out just by doing a little bit of research amounts to a whole lot more than Cadillac Records covers. Don't get me wrong. Outside of the historical inaccuracy, thin character development and the formulaic plot points, Cadillac Records is still a decent film. But if you're expecting to leave this film learning something about the blues or the legendary figures that shaped it, the movie doesn't quite cut it.
Facts of the Case
Cadillac Records spins the tale of Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody, The Pianist) and his journey to success as he creates a platform for Black blues musicians that ultimately leads to mainstream recognition. Along the way, we meet the legendary bluesman Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright, W.), the father of rock and roll, Chuck Berry (Mos Def, 16 Blocks), songwriter and bassist Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer, Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins), blues harpist Lil' Walter (Columbus Short, Stomp the Yard), vocalist Etta James (Beyonce Knowles, Dreamgirls) and blues singer Howlin' Wolf (Eammon Walker, Oz), while getting a mere glimpse at their continuous struggles in the music business.
When you step into world of Cadillac Records, it's going to feel like a déjá vu. Thanks to all the music biopics that came before it, the structure is so familiar and predictable that it should be its own genre. The only distinctions between the film and its counterparts is that Cadillac Records falls under the weight of too many characters, storylines and history covered in so little time. Movies like Ray and Walk the Line took over two hours to tell the stories of one character. In contrast, Cadillac Records tries to ram the stories of seven people into less than two hours. Ironically, writer/director Darnell Martin meant for this film to serve as a "true essence" of the period and the people involved in it. However, I don't think capturing a fraction of these legendary figures and diluting their stories to cinematic fluff in the effort to conserve time was what they had in mind.
Cohesion is an essential factor to a big story like this, which is what Cadillac Records ultimately lacks. Because the recorded music is often used to introduce characters and push the story along, coupled with an unexceptional score, there is little breathing room left. The result seems rushed and emotions aren't allowed to simmer and resonate.
There are several inconsistencies that the movie depicts such as Chess discovering most of the musicians involved in Cadillac Records. In reality, they were already stars in their own right. The elimination of Philip Chess, Leonard's brother and business partner marks another crucial element in the story that was lost. The deleted scenes show Writer/Director Darnell Martin's fruitless attempt to introduce Phil into the story as Chess's kid brother. She also overlooks the enormous effect that the Chess Brothers' monopoly had on the blues genre. The strength of their vision and their love of the music turned Chess Records into the quintessential leader of American blues. In an interview, Etta James confirmed that Chess and she never had romantic relationship but acknowledged that their friendship was priceless and that Chess was the only person to really see her. The truth behind the legacy of Chess Records is legendary and better than fiction. Watering it down to Hollywood conventions and flimsy clichés doesn't do it justice.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite all of its faults, Cadillac Records' only saving grace is the strength of its actors' performances. Although they weren't given much room to perform due to the limited coverage of each character, most give solid (some surprising) performances that help the film stay afloat. Brody as the morally ambiguous and ruthlessly ambitious Chess is a nice choice for this film. Brody brings charisma and sensitivity to his character that makes Chess more likable despite his controversial accounting methods. Like Martin, I was most intrigued about Chess's practice of paying his artists in Cadillacs and borrowing against their royalties. Chess provides the shovel that they use to dig themselves into financial ruin. Regardless, there is some humanity in Chess that Brody captures very well. He may exploit his artists to lines his pockets, but the guilt he harbors is evident.
The natural chemistry between Brody and Wright showcases their friendly and sometimes uneasy partnership due to the complications of race. Because of Wright's understated portrayal of Muddy Waters, you get the sense that there is an intense respect and devotion between the two. They both know the reality behind their uneven situation. But they'd both rather risk the burden of silence than to acknowledge it.
Wright's quiet performance emphasizes how truly underrated he is. Muddy's power came from his inability to express himself emotionally except in his music. He sings about things he can't talk about. Because Wright spent months learning and practicing the guitar, he is very credible as a singer and guitarist by letting the instrument become an appendage of himself. The depth that Gabrielle Union brings to Geneva Morganfield, Muddy's wife, was very surprising. Queen of the black romantic comedy, here she shows more range than she's ever received credit for.
The unsung hero of this film is Mos Def in his turn as Chuck Berry. He packs so much complexity and charm into such a limited role. Instead of displaying the usual anger that blacks mustered when being turned away from white establishments, Mos Def uses playful sarcasm to make an endearing point. The amiable eccentricity that he exudes as Berry is effortless.
However, the award for most improved goes to Beyonce as Etta James. Though far from Oscar-winning, the performance proves that she can hold her own against an Oscar heavyweight. Even if lacking in subtlety, she finally shows that she can portray a personality outside of her own with some credibility. Beyonce enters the picture like one of the guys, hard, guarded and constantly pushing people's buttons. Honestly, her casual dropping of the f-word whenever she gets peeved took me aback upon my first viewing. I'm used to the humble and polite Beyonce, without the brash propensity for expletives or cocky sass. She's come a long way since playing Carmen. But if she keeps resorting to her natural crutch of depicting singers, we'll never know if she is the real thing or just playing actor.
The only performances that proved to be less than substantial were the characters of Lil' Walter and Revetta Chase, respectively played by Short and Emmauelle Chiriqui. Muddy is the first to discover Lil' Walter, a feisty and unstable youth. As extremely talented as he is combative, Walter is a flame that only Muddy can tame. However, their relationship becomes tumultuous as Walter's lack of control is always at odds with Muddy's overwhelming control. The director says that there is supposed to be a love story between Muddy and Walter. But, that story never comes to fruition due to Columbus' heavy handed theatrics. While the theatrics serve him well in the midst of Walter's volatile fits, it easily becomes tiresome and a bit contrived when Short tries to channels his emotions. Chiriqui's wooden performance as Revetta left much to be desired. You never really get to know who she is to care about her woes as Chess's wife. Her suspicions about Leonard's feelings about Etta appears unfounded and unsubstantiated (although true) due to the fact that the two never really meet onscreen. Her inherent naivety really doesn't bring much to her relationship with Brody. Their interaction seems more platonic than intimate.
In terms of Cadillac Records' DVD release, the video transfer seems good enough. I can't tell whether the murky color scheme and the limited definition in the heavy shadows are attributed to the transfer or the choice in cinematography. But it works to the film's advantage by distracting you from focusing too closely on the generic production design and the claustrophobic camerawork. The sound quality could be better. Under their heavy southern accents and penchant for Ebonics, Wright and Short's lines sometimes come off muddled. In comparison to the musical performances, you really notice the difference in sharpness and volume. Unless you have a knack for watching every film with subtitles just to make sure you don't miss a thing, (which I do) you might not catch everything.
Although the special features don't help the film itself, they do shed some interesting light on the process it took to make the film. Evidently, Martin did substantial research that led to her original 150-paged script. However, in her commentary she discloses that producing a film with a script of that length was impossible. Thanks to her commentary and the behind the scenes featurettes, the obvious truth is that she didn't have enough funding. Unlike major studio films that can afford to run overbudget and lag behind in scheduling, rehearsals were crucial to this production and Martin admits that she often caught flack from her meticulous crew because she couldn't afford to have countless takes.
Martin offers some insight on the commentary track by sharing extensive backstories on many of the characters. One example is the professional rivalry between Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters. Because the film presents him as a minor character, we never realize the true extent of Howlin' Wolf's motives behind his overt dislike for Muddy Waters and just how deep their contention lies. Martin fills in all the details of Wolf's background and personality. She even explains that no one but Howlin' Wolf measured up to Muddy in talent, which Wolf knew and often used as a weapon against Muddy.
"Playing Chess: The Making of Cadillac Records" is your usual behind-the-scenes account of the film and the actors' performances. With "Once Upon a Blues: Cadillac Records by Design," production designer Linda Burton and costume designer Johnetta Boone talk about the marriage between their respective crafts while dealing with the difficulties of trying to capture the 1950s on an indie budget.
The premise of Cadillac Records is a nice one that focuses not on one sole figure, but on the overwhelming significance of a group of musicians under one label had on a business, a community and ultimately the world. The sad part is that it doesn't accomplish that effectively. But in the words of the Rolling Stones, (whose namesake and style was largely influenced by the Blues and the artists portrayed in this film) "you can't always get what you want. But if you try sometime, you just might find you get what you need." And what the Blues needs so desperately now is exposure. At the very least, Cadillac Records does deliver in that respect.
Guilty of making a mess out one of the most prolific periods in music history.
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