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Friday, Aug. 14, 2009
Muddying the history of the blues with style
After Hollywood's huge success with "Dreamgirls," the thinly fictionalized story of legendary soul/R&B label Motown, along comes "Cadillac Records." This musical biopic goes one step further back in the history of black American music, and comes up with a thinly fictionalized look at legendary blues label Chess Records. With Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Etta James on their roster, Chess championed an electric urban blues sound that was destined to become the roots of rock 'n' roll, worshipped by people like Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page.
Where "Dreamgirls" had Jamie Foxx as an impressario based on Motown's Berry Gordy, "Cadillac Records" has Adrien Brody as label head Leonard Chess; "Dreamgirls" saw Eddie Murphy do his best James Brown imitation, and "Cadillac Records" has Jeffrey Wright morphing into Muddy Waters; Beyonce Knowles had the Diana Ross role in "Dreamgirls," and she's back as blues diva Etta James in the new flick. (Jennifer Hudson, mercifully, is absent this time 'round, thus sparing our eardrums of her lung-busting bellow.)
"Cadillac Records" begins by following the king of Chicago blues, Muddy Waters, as he moves from playing acoustic guitar on his front porch as a Mississippi sharecropper to playing electric guitar on the streets and juke joints of 1940s Chicago. There he meets Leonard Chess, a young Jewish immigrant from Poland scrabbling to get ahead. Unlike most white folk at the time, Chess had no problem with running a nightclub for black patrons, or recording "race music" (as it was known) — and bribing DJs to play it — so long as it sold.
The film follows Muddy as he hooks up with his band, the All-Star Trio, featuring the searing blues harp playing of Little Walter (Columbus Short), and the aggressive way in which they steal other bands' gigs, outplay their competitors, and — in Walter's case — even take a shot at their imitators. Muddy sleeps around about as much you'd expect from the guy who wrote "I'm A Man," Walter pines for Muddy's ever-faithful wife Jennifer, Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker) nourishes a rivalry with Muddy, and Chess remains a happily married man, until he runs into the walking train wreck that is Etta James.
Brody is in top form as Leonard Chess, a smooth-talking operator with that typically Chicago brashness. The film's title comes from Chess' penchant for presenting his artists with brand new Cadillacs when they had a hit, a powerful status symbol for poor black musicians. Of course when Muddy asks when he's gonna see some royalties from his hit "Hoochie-Coochie Man," Chess tells him, "Well, a Cadillac ain't free." The devil's deal between artist and label — they make you famous, you make them rich — is handled deftly here, but Chess is also given the benefit of the doubt, portrayed as a real music-lover, and someone who genuinely cared about his artists, even if he did cook the books from time to time.
Jeffrey Wright continues to amaze; he can play a morally susceptible corporate lawyer in "Syriana," Bill Murray's stoner sleuth neighbor in "Broken Flowers," an imploding secretary of state in "W.", and a hard-drinking, hard-lovin' bad-to-the-bone bluesman here, and be entirely convincing in each. As Muddy Waters, Wright has a perpetually cagey, wry look, like he never stops sizing you up, never gives anything away. This brusque charm gives his character an air of mystery that only deepens when he gets on stage and starts to play. (And Wright performs all the music here live, with excellent results.)
Beyonce's is very much the pop star's role; she shows up late in the game, and has less acting to do and gets more entire takes of the songs she sings; on the plus side, her take on Etta James is respectful, without going overboard with modern R&B's penchant for overembellishment.
"Cadillac Records" ain't perfect. Its history is loose with the truth — Leonard Chess' brother and co-owner Phil is written out of the story entirely, and it's unlikely Chess and James were lovers, as the film claims.
The film also has that Screenwriter 101 tendency to put every emotional problem of its characters down to a parental "issue." But with a soundtrack as full of killer blues as this one — "I'm A Man," "My Babe," "Smokestack Lightnin'," "At Last" — and a decent evocation of the era, "Cadillac Records" is a decent homage for fans of the genre, and a better intro for those whose roots don't stretch that deep.