Friday, December 05, 2008

Film Reviews: "Cadillac Records"

Got Their Musical Mojo Working

The New York Times
Published: December 5, 2008

This movie has been designated a Critic's Pick by the film reviewers of The Times.

Eric Liebowitz/Sony TriStar Pictures

Jeffrey Wright as "Muddy Waters" in "Cadillac Records," directed by Darnell Martin.

In “Cadillac Records,” Darnell Martin’s rollicking and insightful celebration of Chicago blues in its hectic golden age, Jeffrey Wright plays the singer and guitarist Muddy Waters. This feat is made even more impressive and interesting when you reflect that in the same movie season Mr. Wright has portrayed another notable real-life African-American, the former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in Oliver Stone’s “W.” The man is equally credible as a statesman and a bluesman. If that’s not range, what is?

Much more than racial typecasting or clever mimicry is at work in these performances. Mr. Wright can hardly be said to bear a strong physical resemblance to Muddy Waters or Mr. Powell — or, for that matter, to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he played in the HBO film “Boycott,” or to the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, so brilliantly impersonated in “Basquiat.”

Rather, Mr. Wright, as protean and serious an actor as any working in American movies, seems to be writing his own version of “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man,” the literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s collection of essays on various styles of African-American manhood.

In each case, whether playing a former soldier or a tormented artist, Mr. Wright directs our attention away from the familiar, public face of the character in question toward a private zone where ambition struggles with anxiety, and where what seems to be at stake is nothing less than the integrity and viability of the self. And so, in his Muddy Waters, we see pride, ambition and uncertainty cohabiting with musical genius, sexual appetite and stubborn professionalism.

“Cadillac Records” is by no means Mr. Wright’s film alone, and his work is enriched by the skill and verve of a prodigious ensemble. The film is not — thank goodness — another dutiful musical biopic, but rather the group portrait of a remarkable, volatile constellation of artists, including Little Walter (Columbus Short), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), Etta James (BeyoncĂ© Knowles), Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) and Willie Dixon, the bassist and songwriter who narrates in the mellow, countrified voice of Cedric the Entertainer.

These musical innovators are gathered together — promoted, exploited and given shiny new Caddies with heavy strings attached — by Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), a Jewish entrepreneur in postwar Chicago who sees “race music” as a potential gold mine. That it also turns out to be an agent of wholesale cultural transformation — an old song observes that the blues had a baby, and they called it rock ’n’ roll — does not faze him in the least.

Few subjects are as encrusted with legend, hyperbole and sheer bunk as the history of American popular music, and there will no doubt be pedants who will object to some of the liberties “Cadillac Records” has taken with the literal truth. At times Leonard Chess seems so stressed out by running the record company bearing his name that you wish he had, say, a brother to share the burden. The real Leonard Chess did, but for now Phil Chess will have to join Nesuhi Ertegun, brother of Ahmet, in the ranks of music industry siblings neglected by Hollywood.

In any case, Ms. Martin, who wrote as well as directed “Cadillac Records,” does not need to lean too heavily on the historical record, or on the dreary conventions of pop-culture hagiography, because she has a clear and complicated set of ideas about her characters and a deep appreciation of the music they made. It is, sadly, all too rare for a movie about important musicians to pay intelligent attention to the sounds and idioms that make their lives worth dramatizing in the first place.

But in “Cadillac Records” you hear most of the important advances and developments that defined urban blues in the 1940s and ’50s. When Muddy Waters, newly arrived in Chicago from Mississippi, plugs his guitar into an amplifier, a new sonic mutation occurs. Then Chuck Berry comes along, playing in a speedier, country-inflected style that makes him the first major star to cross from the R&B to the pop charts.

“Cadillac Records” would be worth seeing for the music alone. Mr. Wright’s renditions of Muddy Waters’s signature songs are more than respectable, while Ms. Knowles’s interpretations of Ms. James’s hits — “At Last” and “I’d Rather Go Blind,” in particular — are downright revelatory.

And so, it should be said, is Ms. Knowles’s performance. In her previous film roles she has seemed guarded and tentative, as if worried that her charisma would melt from too much emotional heat. Here, playing a needy, angry, ferociously talented and fantastically undisciplined woman, she is as volcanic and voluptuous as an Italian movie star. Or, more to the point, a real soul diva of the old school.

The music is also a window into history, and “Cadillac Records” is an uncommonly astute treatment of race in America at the end of the Jim Crow era. Its dense, anecdotal narrative is built around the sometimes uneasy friendship between Leonard Chess and Muddy Waters, his first big star. Chess is devoted to his artists, but he also profits from their art, and Mr. Brody shows him to be neither a paragon of racial enlightenment nor a predator.

“His job is to make money off you,” Howlin’ Wolf says to Muddy Waters, who is hurt by what he sees as Chess’s double-dealing. “You’re from Mississippi. I thought you would have known that.”
The rivalry between those two bluesmen is another source of intrigue in “Cadillac Records,” which sustains a remarkable number of dramatically important relationships, any one of which could have been a movie in its own right. Muddy Waters is also a mentor to Little Walter — a troubled, reckless, brilliant harmonica player — and a steadfast (if unfaithful) husband to Geneva (Gabrielle Union). Chess, meanwhile, though he is married (his wife, Revetta, is played by Emmanuelle Chriqui) is nearly undone by his passion for Etta James.

So much passion, so much pain, so much tenderness and violence. If you dig up an album from the heyday of Chess Records, you’ll find all that and more. And “Cadillac Records” is nearly as good as one of those albums, which is saying a lot. This movie is crowded and sprawling, and if it rambles sometimes, that’s just fine. Like those big, boxy Caddies (and like Howlin’ Wolf, if he did say so himself), it’s built for comfort, not for speed. It hums, it purrs and it roars.

“Cadillac Records” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has smoking, swearing, sex and mayhem in excess, which is just the right amount.


Opens on Friday nationwide.

Written and directed by Darnell Martin; director of photography, Anastas Michos; edited by Peter C. Frank; music by Terence Blanchard; production designer, Linda Burton; produced by Andrew Lack and Sofia Sondervan; released by TriStar Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes.

WITH: Adrien Brody (Leonard Chess), Jeffrey Wright (Muddy Waters), Gabrielle Union (Geneva Wade), Columbus Short (Little Walter), Cedric the Entertainer (Willie Dixon), Emmanuelle Chriqui (Revetta Chess), Eamonn Walker (Howlin’ Wolf), Eric Bogosian (Alan Freed), Mos Def (Chuck Berry) and BeyoncĂ© Knowles (Etta James).

Cadillac Records

The birthplace of the wang dang doodle

Release Date: 2008
Ebert Rating: ***
Dec 3, 2008
by Roger Ebert
Chicago Sun-Times

In the studio with Chess legends Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) and Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright).

An argument could be made that modern rock 'n' roll was launched not at Sun Records in Memphis, but at Chess Records, 2120 S. Michigan, and its earlier South Side locations since the early 1950s. The Rolling Stones even recorded a song named after the address. The great Chess roster included Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Etta James, Willie Dixon, Chuck Berry and Little Walter. They first made Chicago the home of the blues, and then rhythm and blues, which, as Muddy said, had a baby, and they named it rock 'n' roll.

"Cadillac Records" is an account of the Chess story that depends more on music than history, which is perhaps as it should be. The film is a fascinating record of the evolution of a black musical style, and the tangled motives of the white men who had an instinct for it. The Chess brothers, Leonard and Phil, walked into neighborhoods that were dicey for white men after midnight, packed firearms, found or were found by the most gifted musicians of the emerging urban music, and recorded them in a studio so small it forced the sound out into the world.

This movie sidesteps the existence of Phil Chess, now living in Arizona, and focuses on the enigmatic, chain-smoking Leonard (Adrien Brody). Starting with an early liaison with Muddy Waters, who in effect became his creative partner, he visited "race music" radio stations in the South with his artists and payola, found and/or created a demand, and gave his musicians shiny new Cadillacs but never a good look at their royalties. Muddy (Jeffrey Wright) was probably paid only a share of the money he earned, but the more ferocious Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), seemingly less sophisticated, held onto his money, made his own deals and incredibly even paid health benefits for the members of his band.

It is part of the legend that Muddy was nice, Howlin' was scary, and they disliked each other. In the film, they are guarded but civil, and fierce competitors. Walker plays the 6-foot-4 Wolf as a scowler who somehow from that height looks up at people under hooded eyes and appears willing to slice you just for the convenience. The real Howlin' Wolf must have been more complex; he couldn't read or write until he was past 40, but then he earned his high school equivalency diploma and studied accounting, an excellent subject for an associate of Leonard Chess.

Did Chess love the music? Brody's performance and the script by director Darnell Martin leave that question a little cloudy. Certainly he had good taste and an aggressive business instinct, and he didn't sit in an office in Loop but was behind the bar at the Macomba Lounge on Saturday nights in the late 1940s, when some of his more alarming customers must have figured, hey, a white man that crazy, maybe it's not a good idea to mess with him.

Leonard was married but maintained a wall between his business and his family. "Cadillac Records" speculates that later in his career, he may have fallen in love with his new discovery Etta James (pop superstar Beyonce Knowles). If so, romance didn't blind him to her gifts, and in a movie where the actors do most of their own singing, her performances are inspired and persuasive.

Beyonce Knowles as Etta James.

The Chess artists had an influence in more than one way on white rock singers. The Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA" has the same melody as Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen." Frank Zappa borrowed Wolf's favorite exclamation, "Great googley moogley!" The Rolling Stones, who acknowledged their Chicago influences, paid a pilgrimage to South Michigan Avenue and arranged a European tour for Chess stars; later, Keith Richards talked Chuck Berry into the concert shown in the great doc "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll" and even played backup guitar to Berry.

Given the number of characters and the time covered, Martin does an effective job of sketching the backgrounds of some of her subjects and doesn't go out of her way to indict Leonard's business methods (did the singers know their Cadillacs were bought with their own money?). There is a poignant scene where Leonard arranges the first meeting between Etta James and her white father (who was -- are you ready for this -- Minnesota Fats). And a close look at the troubled but durable marriage of Muddy Waters and his wife Geneva Wade (Gabrielle Union).

The casting throughout is successful. Columbus Short suggests the building inner torments of Little Walter, and Cedric the Entertainer plays the singer-songwriter Willie Dixon as a creator and synthesizer. Nobody can really play Chuck Berry, but Mos Def does a great duck walk.

Eamonn Walker, at 6-foot-1, is three inches shy of the towering Howlin', but he evokes presence and intimidation. Sometimes I'm amazed at actors. Seeing Howlin' Wolf bring danger into the room in this film, you'd never guess Walker started as a dancer, was a social worker, acts in Shakespeare, is married to a novelist. Could any of the regulars at 2120 S. Michigan have guessed they would be instrumental in creating a music that would dominate the entire world for the next 50 years?

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