(No longer in theaters)
Dec 5, 2008
Darnell Martin’s Cadillac Records tells the story of Chicago’s Chess Records and the seminal blues artists it launched, among them Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, and Etta James. The film moves swiftly and leaves out details, but that barely matters. The ensemble is stupendous—howlingly great—and the music goes deep. The major themes are beautifully worked out. First recorded in Mississippi by folk historian Alan Lomax, Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) takes his act on the road and winds up in Chicago in the fifties working with Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), the Polish-Jewish émigré with a fondness for blues and Cadillacs—which he bestows on his successful artists, often in lieu of paychecks. Martin handles Chess’s possible duplicity (as opposed to spaciness) vaguely, but that ends up working for the film: As progressive as he is in collaborating with African-Americans, Chess acts as if they shouldn’t need to worry their little heads about money, which they wouldn’t know how to handle anyway. As they move from the plantation to the recording studio to segregated and then desegregated halls, these artists are at once wildly potent—their music takes people someplace so goood they want to get naked—and infantilized. They act out in different ways, with booze or smack or sex or violence; they’re not yet fully liberated. (There would be many lawsuits to come.)
The framing device (the story is told by Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon) isn’t fresh, and the film isn’t everything it should be visually: The compositions feel hemmed-in, TV-ish, instead of sinuous and febrile. But the soundtrack—a mix of re-creations and originals—takes you places movies rarely go. After a run of bland big-money roles, Wright reminds us what an astounding character actor he is. He does the Brando thing—puffed-out cheeks and a thick tongue, with a staccato mumble. Columbus Short’s Little Walter comes at you with the showboat fury of Walter’s harmonica; Eamonn Walker’s gravel-voiced Howlin’ Wolf is lycanthropically inspired; and if Mos Def’s Chuck Berry isn’t especially Berryish, it’s Mos at his funniest and loopiest. The surprise is Beyoncé Knowles, who is not the gorgeous, self-contained non-actress we’ve come to know but a plush pincushion who can barely contain her resentment. Cadillac Records could be three times as long and wouldn’t spread its miracles too thin.