Friday, December 5, 2008

Cadillac Records: Edsel handling

Cadillac Records (2008) • View trailer for Cadillac Records
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, violence, sexual content and drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.5.08
Buy DVD: Cadillac Records • Buy Blu-Ray: Cadillac Records [Blu-ray]

The music is sensational, and the acting is uniformly strong; to my great surprise, Beyoncé is even persuasive with her portrayal of Etta James.

Unfortunately, the script for Cadillac Records is sloppy and disjointed, and the film's overall approach is amazingly clumsy. I've rarely seen a director who's both adept at coaxing solid performances from a cast, but inept when it comes to putting a film together.
Having successfully gotten Muddy Waters' (Jeffrey Wright, right) signature
sound on the radio, music impresario Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) next
surprises his new colleague by unveiling a state-of-the-art recording studio,
where they can start producing and promoting their own stable of artists.

That would be Darnell Martin, who both wrote and directed Cadillac Records. That her heart was in the right place is obvious; she clearly burned to shine a light on the evolution of Chess Records, the Chicago-based blues label that played such a major role in breaking down the American color barrier in the late 1950s and early '60s.

But passion isn't enough, when it comes to telling a cohesive story; Martin has made a movie that treats its key players with distressing superficiality.

The questions emerge with the first scene, as the perhaps unwholesomely ambitious Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody, appropriately gaunt and hungry) suddenly transforms from a junkyard dealer to an inner-city blues club owner. An interesting shift, to be sure ... and we're supposed to believe that he made it solely because of a stinging remark made by the father of a young woman caught compromised with him?

Did Chess have no prior interest in music? Was he really merely an "opportunistic Polish Jew," as this film so frequently — and pejoratively — suggests?

Actually, I take it back: Martin's first mistake comes even sooner, by having this saga narrated by a much older Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), looking back over the tempestuous rise of Chess Records. Ongoing voice-overs can add clarity and great dignity to a film — Forrest Gump comes to mind — or they can become an intrusive crutch, employed too frequently to patch over gaping narrative holes.

Martin's use of voice-overs, sadly, falls into the latter category.

She has better luck following the parallel, post-WWII backstory of Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), a Deep-South sharecropper who, after hearing his own voice preserved by a primitive recording machine, decides that he needs to abandon his "slave shack" and make at least some attempt to share his sound with big-city denizens.

His initially unsuccessful efforts are quite touching, in great part because of the calm, unruffled dignity of Wright's performance; this sequence establishes Waters as the film's emotional core.

Waters eventually hooks up with a seriously unstable harp player, Little Walter (Columbus Short), and ace guitarist Jimmy Rogers (Kevin Mambo); calling themselves "the headhunters," they make a habit of crashing clubs and challenging on-stage performers to an impromptu blues duel ... which they invariably win.

In this fashion, they eventually reach Chess' Club Macambo, where the resident band doesn't back down; Little Walter starts waving a gun around, and all hell breaks loose. Angry but nonetheless able to recognize talent, Chess finds Waters the next day and insists they cut a record.

The subsequent odyssey, as Chess and Waters attempt to get this music heard on the radio, also is fascinating for its historical context: the casual manner in which white DJs grudgingly spin "race music" only because its popularity is on the rise; and Chess' unapologetic willingness to bribe on-air talent in order to get the record played. Chess clearly has a vision; we can see it in Brody's eyes, and the actor's lean, unctuous angularity accents his character's insatiable desire for success.

It would be nice to know, however, whether Chess really believes in the music ... because Martin and Brody never make that clear.

Subsequent events occur rapidly, starting when Club Macambo burns to the ground — the implication being that its owner set the fire himself, in order to obtain the insurance money — and Chess builds the cutting-edge studios of his own record label, which opens its doors in 1956.

The initial stable of talent includes Waters and Little Walter; both deliver hits ... but not on the mainstream pop charts. That remains the elusive crossover dream.

(This is perhaps the best moment to mention that Martin completely overlooks the involvement of Leonard Chess' bother, Phil, who in real life co-founded Chess Records and had an equal hand in cultivating its talent. Phil Chess is nowhere to be seen in this movie. How's that for re-writing history?)

The rest of the film is a blend of isolated captivating moments and nagging questions relating to fragmenting personal relationships.

Eamonn Walker is sensational as blues singer Howlin' Wolf, whose deadly reputation precedes him; Walker's overly bright gaze has the dangerous glint of barely restrained psychosis.

Mos Def's late appearance as Chuck Berry is equally energetic; Def really runs with this performance, and his sassy attitude is as engaging as the eye-opening discovery, by a racist cracker club owner, that "Chuck Berry" isn't a white country singer (which actually happened, more than once, due to the nature of Berry's music).

Similarly, the collapse of the color barrier — literally and symbolically conveyed by the velvet ropes and cops that separate young white and black fans in a performance hall where Berry plays — is a triumphantly peaceful moment, as the kids cross the divide and start dancing with each other.

On the other hand, Waters' weird relationship with his long-suffering wife (Gabrielle Union) is poorly established and becomes less satisfying as the film continues; the same is true of Chess' relationship with his wife (Emmanuelle Chriqui). Both men have children who pop up briefly here and there, more as window dressing than because of any emotional engagement.

Consider, by way of contrast, the degree to which we got inside the heads of Anne Hathaway and Michelle Williams, in Brokeback Mountain; that's the way to illustrate the shattered instability of women attached to unfaithful and absentee men. Union and Chriqui are little more than decorative ciphers ... although, in fairness, Union has one deeply poignant scene with Short, as Little Walter comes to recognize the degree to which Waters takes his wife for granted.

Earlier, Little Walter's drastic "solution" to an interloper trading on his name is sketched so poorly, and in such a throwaway manner, that a scene that should be horrifying instead elicits unwelcome laughter. This sequence is typical of Martin's inability to understand some very basic fundamentals of effective filmmaking.

Beyoncé's late entry as Etta James — the full-throated sensation whose well-named "At Last" gives Chess Records its crossover hit — is such an afterthought that her character seems to have wandered in from some other movie. It's not Beyoncé's fault; she really rips into her performance and several songs.

But so much happens to this woman — a heroin habit; a confrontation with pool player Minnesota Fats, whom she believes is her father; a subtle, shuddery, shared passion with Chess — and in such slapdash fashion, that James clearly deserves her own full-length film. Instead, she's on hand merely as some sort of climactic coda.

Other issues just sort of ... fizzle away. The outcome of Chuck Berry's plagiarism suit against the Beach Boys (!) is relegated to a closing text crawl, as is the revelation that Willie Dixon also sued Led Zeppelin for plagiarism (!!). Waters and Dixon also were forced to sue Chess Records for their own back royalties, and we wonder precisely who they sued, since the film ends as Leonard Chess abandons his own label (for reasons inadequately explained).

Questions, questions, questions ... and very few answers. All that really emerges from this film is everybody's deep love for the blues, with dozens of songs integrated superbly with on-screen events by music supervisor Beth Amy Rosenblatt.

Buy the soundtrack CD and call it a day.

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