Cadillac Records.

I think if we’re all quite honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that the methods to approaching big-screen biopics are finite—especially biopics about musicians. In order for people’s lives to warrant the silver screen treatment in the first place, those lives have to possess extremes—a series of extenuating events that can be exploited for the highest dramatic impact the actors can generate. And face it: biopics are only as good as their actors. Sure, the writing has to be passable. If you’re lucky, the writing makes the actors’ jobs easy, but to our main point: the lives themselves provide the pathos. The writers need only heighten it. Yes, there are glaring historical omissions. Yes, there are all kinds of melodramatic liberties taken—especially in the film’s second to last scene of this film. But that, too, comes with the predictable territory of biopics, and good actors mine that melodrama for all its worth. That’s what makes a decent biopic so watchable.

Everyone involved in Darnell Martin’s Cadillac Records understands the pecking order of the biopic genre—which is precisely why this one works so well. Fortunately, the casting directors brought their A-game, tapping Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess, the Jewish-Polish immigrant who founded the most successful Blues and R&B label in Chicago history, Chess Records, and the incomparable Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, Chess’s flagship artist.

With Brody and Wright anchoring the film, the substantial supporting cast had no choice but to tow the Oscar-caliber line and, with very few exceptions, they did. Granted, Cedric the Entertainer was probably miscast as songwriter Willie Dixon. He always sounds like he’s faking an accent, rather than playing a role. It’s as though his acting ability doesn’t extend beyond varying the tenor of his voice. But since he was only in a few scenes, total (even his role as the narrator didn’t yield him that many lines), he wasn’t distracting at all.

Other actors with pretty small roles included Eamonn Walker as Howlin’ Wolf, Mos Def as Chuck Berry, and Beyonce as Etta James. Walker’s Howlin’ Wolf was a formidable presence with an icy glare, a grim smile, and serious control issues. Mos Def was suave, comical, and chagrined in equal measure. Beyonce was surprising as a pottymouth and walking wound, with a penchant for syringes and pints of gin. She has miles to go before she’ll be able to carry a role with no singing involved (and speaking of singing, I think I would’ve preferred it if she’d lip-synched… especially on “At Last,” but that’s a nitpick), but she’s grown leaps and bounds beyond her last high-profile role as Deena Jones in 2006’s Dreamgirls.

The real standout among the supporting cast was Columbus Short as Little Walter. From his first frame, a conk in his hair and a harmonica on his lips, Short electrifies in his role as the dark, wounded, and slightly psychotic blues singer.  Short is strongest in scenes with Wright and Gabrielle Union (who plays Geneva, Muddy Waters’ wife and Little Walter’s surrogate mother), and was equal parts braggadocio and bitter tears. His turn as an infinitely talented boy whose self-loathing rendered him incapable of accepting the unconditional, parental love Muddy and Geneva offered is so nuanced that you completely forgot you were watching a very familiar archetype of tragedy.

If  Short’s Little Walter wasn’t enough of a pleasant surprise, Adrien Brody’s chemistry with Beyonce was another of the film’s high points. Every time he looked at her, his eyes crinkled like a man rendered helpless (and with ol’ girl’s hip-hugging cadre of costumes, is it any wonder?). Even though this likely wasn’t a stretch for the dude who arrogantly slobbed Halle down at the Oscars, Brody played his feelings for Etta with a hat-in-hand humility that almost made his infidelity sympathetic.

And Wright–as the emotional center of the film—infused his Muddy with a resolve that was able to barrel through all kinds of indignity in order never to return to sharecropping. Though his face often flickered with resentment and jealousy (especially in the presence of Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry), his wry demeanor and uncanny intuition often acquitted him quickly.

As you can see, the strengths of Cadillac Records rest solely in its performers’ profound connections with one another.  This film deserves multiple viewings, if for no other reason than the meticulousness with which Muddy mourns Walter or the tenderness with which Leonard gazes at Etta.

Don’t get us wrong. Plot-wise, there’s little you haven’t seen before: a once-pretty, now worn wife who puts up with no end of philandering, up to and including, raising another woman’s baby simply because she’s a Good Woman; the deeply troubled apprentice whose entree into a life of booze and blow lead to an early demise; music’s ability to temporarily transcend segregation; a patriarchal White producer getting high off his black clients’ supply (of talent); countless Caucasian musicians capitalizing on underpaid Black artists’ musicianship; and a swaggering chanteuse who futilely hopes her addictions will anestheticize her pain.

Still, go see it. It may be familiar territory, but there’s no reason it should’ve opened ninth—unless times really haven’t changed much since the heyday of payola and paternalism at all….

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8 thoughts on “Cadillac Records.

  1. rakia December 8, 2008 at 11:20 am Reply

    For me, the movie was good, but the performances were incredible. Jeffrey Wright’s talent astounds me. Adrien Brody is so nuanced. And might I add, this white boy with the huge, crooked, honker-of-a-nose has a sex appeal/swagger that I cannot explain. Columbus Short showed acting chops that I didn’t know he had. (I thought he was mostly a dancer.) Eamonn Wright and Mos Def were excellent. But for the me the big performance came from — *dramatic pause b/c I can’t believe I actually believe this* — Mrs. Jay-Z herself.

    Beyonce put her foot all up and through this movie. Yes, her part was supporting. Okay, very supporting. But oh. My. God. This chick has acting talent. For real. No, seriously. She does.

    On the lip-syncing tip, Stacia, I gotta disagree with you. “At Last” is the song I least liked B singing, mostly because Etta James’s version is definitive. But when B sang “I’d Rather Go Blind” and the other song about her man marrying another woman (what’s the name of this? google is no help this morning), I honestly wanted to reach through the screen and give homegirl a hug.

    And don’t get me started on the strung-out fireplace scene. I don’t think B’s performance warrants an Oscar nomination (as others are already spectulating), but it should put people on notice that she’s got genuine talent as an actress and not just a singer.

    The most disappointing person in the movie was Gabrielle Union, who continues to get cast in girlfriend roles. I never understood why until now. She’s superpretty and all. But um. Maybe she needs to get the same acting coach B did.

  2. slb December 8, 2008 at 12:56 pm Reply

    I was just telling someone else that I didn’t even think to mention Gabrielle in the review (beyond saying she was in the flick… lol) because she was kind of a cipher. I mean, put-upon “good women” are par for the course in films like this. They’re usually not the roles that get any notice (see: Kerry Washington in “Ray” vs. Regina King in “Ray”). But even so, she really wasn’t very believable. I thought she had more chemistry with Short than Wright… and almost wished he’d succeeded in stealing her… because then, her screen time would’ve lessened. She wasn’t believable as a matriarch to Little Walter. I think Wright’s own wife, Carmen Ejogo might’ve been a better choice for the role.

    I don’t know what to say about Beyonce, except that she was above average. The lip-synching thing is controversial. I think making the actors do the singing is a relatively new trend in musician’s biopics… but I kind of think that using the people’s real singing voices (as long as it’s not too jarring when paired with the actor’s speaking voice) lends a tiny bit more authenticity to the flick. I’m in the minority on that, though. A lot of people think it’s a more impressive feat for the actor to sing and it also makes the performance feel more organic/less incongruous. I guess I see both sides.

    And it’s not that Beyonce didn’t sing her ample hips off on that “I’d Rather Go Blind” jawn, because she totally did and it was gut-wrenching watching Adrien walk out on it. (LOVED that scene, because that’s when I knew for certain he was for real about loving her.) It’s just that, because “At Last” is such a signature, I think I would’ve preferred Etta’s real voice there.

  3. glory December 8, 2008 at 1:09 pm Reply

    I think lip-synching is a very good thing. Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got to do With it comes to mind. The version of Bey singing At Last on the radio has grown on me, but Etta James’ version is irreplaceable. No pun intended.

  4. Sister P December 8, 2008 at 1:18 pm Reply

    You did a great and analytical review on this.
    My take:
    -All the leads were worthy and they totally delivered.
    -B was pretty good, her singing NOT. She goes too hard too fast on many numbers and there’s no drama to her songs IMHO. I agree that she’s a little ways off from getting a non-singing role.
    -The scene stealing supporting actor was Walker as Howlin’ Wolf for mine. He was IT for me. Though I love Mos in any and everything he does.
    -Gabby was good to me. It looked to me like some of her best work was left on the editing floor to not steal the thunder from Ms. Executive Producer (Beyonce’). Did you notice that she was EP? I just can’t imagine that those were all the scenes with Muddy and his wife.

    An overall great movie that I’d buy for the collection.

  5. Grump December 8, 2008 at 5:08 pm Reply

    I can’t wait to see this movie when I’m back in The Chi. I’ve always been enamored with Chess Records ever since Willie Dixon’s funeral drew such a large crowd of folks in my neighborhood. Even moreso, when I saw the documentary on Howlin’ Wolf from 2003 that talked about his life and how he handled his business. Dude was thorough in how he never stopped learning and was about his business(What musician do you know, has health insurance for his band?) and wasn’t really as intimidating emotionally as he was physically.

    I hope that they do give him proper shine in the flick.

  6. slb December 8, 2008 at 5:34 pm Reply

    Grump: Howlin’ Wolf didn’t have many scenes but the ones he had were significant (and most of them had to do with his business savvy and protectiveness of his band).

  7. Grump December 8, 2008 at 6:21 pm Reply

    Okay, good looking out!

  8. tab December 10, 2008 at 2:25 pm Reply

    this cements it for me… i’m going to see it. i knew i was going to see it anyhow just because Jeffrey Wright was in it….

    ALSO- for those sleeping on Columbus Short, please see his stint in the short–lived Aaron Sorkin show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. he appears a few eps in and each small performance-is memorable. that show also tells me DL Hughley has some acting chops that haven’t been exploited properly yet.

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