There's a distinctly authentic feel to Cadillac Records, from the fried catfish to the fried hair—gotta love the sight of Jeffrey Wright in that 'do rag—and most of the time, from the grind of the guitars to the wail of the harmonicas, it makes for compelling entertainment.
Beyoncé's not bad, either.
Still, there's a certain occupational hazard to biopics. Maybe it's the obligatory declaration that the film is "based on a true story;" you're pretty much guaranteed that "true" will be a casualty to "story." Time is compressed into movie-sized bites; complexities are reduced to good vs. evil; and key players are eliminated altogether so that everything can be wrapped up in a neat, uplifting narrative arc. A narrative that's inevitably told in a gauzy, color-saturated flashback.
So yes, writer/director Darnell Martin's Cadillac Records, detailing the rise and fall of Chicago's Chess Records in the '50s and '60s, is guilty of some of those biopic sins. It's got the played-out voiceover. (Cedric the Entertainer in the grossly underwritten role of songwriter Willie Dixon.) It conveniently erases key characters—like Chess Records co-founder Phil Chess, brother of Leonard (Adrien Brody).
And it tries to do too much in too little time: It starts out as a parallel story line between two men—Leonard Chess and Muddy Waters (Wright)—but their stories get lost along the way in the rush to include everybody's story, from Chuck Berry's penchant for pretty young things to Etta James' penchant for smack to Howlin' Wolf's penchant for getting paid.
But somehow, Cadillac Records manages to overcome its shortcomings. Maybe it's the sheer energy of the music—down 'n dirty Chicago blues, greasy and gritty, and sung, rather than lip-synched, by the actors themselves.
Maybe it's the novelty of seeing a little-known bit of black history rendered real on the big screen. Ultimately, it's the story of how African-American artists created the blues, and from that, rock 'n roll. And how they then got screwed out of both the cash and the glory as white artists like the Beach Boys and Elvis, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, got really, really rich. (Though the film takes pains to show how the Stones made sure to reach back and give credit to whom it was due.)
The film traces the beginnings of Muddy Waters who, in 1941, leaves the backbreaking sharecropper's life in Mississippi for the streets of Chicago. But the folks in Chicago aren't feeling his brand of Delta blues; one listener derisively calls it "that sharecropping shit." As soon as he plugs in his guitar and joins forces with the harmonica-playing Little Walter, he's good to go.
Meanwhile, Leonard Chess, a Polish Jewish immigrant, is dreaming of a life of riches, a life that'll take him far from the township where he was born and the Chicago junkyard where he now works. Someone tells him that there's gold—not to mention Cadillacs—to be found in "race music," and he decides that he wants a piece of it. He meets up with Waters and the two set about the business of making music, bribing deejays from coast to coast. Hit records are made, wives are betrayed, rivals and money, come and go.
But let us pause for a moment to praise the prodigious skills of Wright, one of this generation's best actors, a man who's mastered the art of the morph. He's the antithesis of a Denzel Washington or a Samuel L. Jackson or a Tom Cruise, men whose very personas send folks flocking to the multiplex. Wright smothers self so that the souls of his characters may live, whether that character is Martin Luther King Jr. or a gay nurse or a Dominican druglord or a CIA card shark.
Here, he's virtually unrecognizable, from his conked out 'do to his Mississippi mumblings to the growling roar of his singing:
I got a black cat bone
I got a mojo too
I got the John the Conqueror Root
I'm gonna mess with you…
I'ma let everybody know I'm that
Hoochie Coochie Man
Not that he's the only one that shines: Brody is a strong presence. Mos Def steals screen time as the thrifty and crafty Chuck Berry, a comic performance that's all too brief. Beyoncé, as Etta James, stretches beyond her wooden turn in Dreamgirls. Her voice doesn't have the grit of the real-life, drug-addicted Etta, but in one scene in particular, she captures her vulnerability, letting the viewer see the source of all the pain in that voice.
In other scenes, it's hard to shake the notion that you're watching Beyoncé act. But in this squirmy scene with Brody's character, Beyoncé, as a strung-out Etta, shows glimmers of emotional maturity. The film doesn't sugarcoat the fact that Leonard is a bit of the paternalist, handing out Cadillacs and houses in lieu of royalty checks, but in his relationship with all the artists, and Etta especially, exploitation is a lot more complicated. In Cadillac Records, we see a label owner/artist relationship that was a symbiotic one, one that went way beyond the bounds of just business.
Teresa Wiltz is a regular contributor to The Root.