Friday, April 24, 2009

Cadillac Records - C

On DVD and Blu-ray

In the late 1940s, Mississippi native Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright, who’s been great everywhere else) travels to Chicago and meets Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody, who’s been underwhelming since he stole that Oscar from Daniel Day-Lewis) by chance. It’s the beginning of the blues – which will eventually morph into rock n’ roll. Chess starts a record company and eventually signs Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles). Along the way, Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer) writes lots of songs and Chess (a Jew) consistently takes chances on risky (i.e. black) musicians . . .

Evidently, every white woman in the 50s and 60s was a filthy whore and every white man was a malicious and unapologetic racist. Every band from The Rolling Stones (ridiculously portrayed here) to Led Zeppelin had no actual talent, but only copied what Waters and Dixon invented. The nearly all black cast are given much more dimensions and are allowed to fight amongst themselves and show jealousy as some are wildly successful (Berry), some have time pass them by (Waters), and some have too many inner demons to ever succeed (Little Walter, played pretty well by newcomer Columbus Short). One of the things the film seems to get right is how the musicians waste all their money on cars, booze, clothes, and women while Chess saves money with a stable home life, living well within his means. (Of course, Chess should be taxed into oblivion and have all his possessions confiscated.)

The film was obviously put into production due to the success of Ray. The recording session scenes feel identical to that film as does the cinematography, art direction, and costumes (somewhat expected since the time periods overlap). But Cadillac Records has a scattered focus as it tries to document multiple musicians rather than just one. Def continues to be the best rapper-turned-actor, but everyone else overdoes it both in mannerisms and line delivery. The music is great, but why did writer-director Darnell Martin feel the need to indict the entire white race and belittle the accomplishments of all the white rock groups of the 60s? The influence of Berry, Waters, and Dixon is obvious to anyone who’s ever read album liner notes or taken a middle school music class. And there are ways to build everyone up without tearing anyone down. C

For an example where everyone wins, check out Muddy Waters with The Band in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz:

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