[National Review Online; December 5, 2008]
A movie based on a musician’s life follows a simple pattern: up, followed by down, rinse, repeat. Remember “Ray” (2004) or “Walk the Line” (2005), or the very pointed parody, “Walk Hard” (2007)? The stereotype is that great artists are born with a blessing and a curse: originality and creative daring come with impulsiveness and insatiability. The same traits that produce their art are the ones that will cause them to wreck their families and fall into addiction. (Somehow this pattern doesn’t apply to Johann Sebastian Bach.) Musical biopics lurch from heights to depths with scant room for character, or even plot, development.
Cheers, then, to Darnell Martin, who both wrote and directed “Cadillac Records.” The film tells the story of Chess Records, the Chicago label brought Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, and Chuck Berry to fame. Once called “race” performers and confined to Southern radio stations, with time their music crossed the race barrier and eventually the Atlantic. In a late scene, Mick Jagger is unpacking outside Chess studios with his band, and is awed to realize he’s talking to Muddy Waters himself; he tells Waters the band is named after one of his songs.
You can already see that this is a densely-populated movie, and that’s not half of them. But Martin conveys the story smoothly, introducing a character and getting him established before bringing the next on stage. They’re more three-dimensional than they might have been, too. The label’s founder Leonard Chess could have been set up as a bad-guy exploiter, but from the start we see that, as a Jewish immigrant from Poland (originally named Lejzor Czyz), he had his own obstacles to overcome. (Chess is portrayed by Adrien Brody, and it’s an excellent performance, though in old photos the original Mr. Chess is somewhat less attenuated.) Toward the end of the film a narrator points out that what Chess did, no black man could have done at the time. It was because he believed in these artists’ music and worked hard for its success that they were able to rise as much as they did. Was he, nevertheless, paternalistic? Did he skim his artists’ royalties? The Chess we see isn’t a plaster saint, but he is a complex, believable character.
Muddy Waters (Jeffery Wright) gets as much screen time as Chess; the film is built around the two men. We meet Waters in 1941, harvesting a crop in Mississippi, when Alan Lomax pulls up and asks him to record a song. It’s a touching moment when Waters listens to the recording and asks, “Is that me?…I feel like I’m meeting myself for the first time.” He moves to Chicago and soon acquires a noble, longsuffering wife, Geneva (Gabrielle Union), as well as a protégé called Little Walter (Columbus Short), a blazing harmonica player (harmonicist?) who’s both reckless and childlike. They start making records with Chess, who promotes them at stations throughout the south and is not averse to dropping some greenbacks on a DJ’s desk. More musicians accumulate, like the bassist and house songwriter, Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), who narrates the film unobtrusively, only occasionally appearing onscreen.
Far more obtrusive—indeed, electrifying—is Eamonn Walker as Howlin’ Wolf. Before he appears, Waters seems the final word on the blues, with his deep voice and testosterone swagger. But Wolf is physically massive and has an animal presence that is wolfish indeed. His voice is a subterranean rasp; suddenly, Waters could double for Alvin the Chipmunk. What’s more, Wolf’s got a sense of independence that Waters, always sponging off Chess, could use. Wolf gives Waters this advice: “It feels good not to have a daddy, and as much as I don’t like you, I want you to feel good like that too.”
Believe it or not, there are still two more characters—and I mean major characters—to introduce. If Howlin’ Wolf puts a bass line under Waters, Chuck Berry (Mos Def) adds brighter notes. He’s quick-spoken and clever, and has shown up at Chess Records with a whole new kind of music that no one knows how to describe (we know, of course, that he got it from Marty McFly). Berry and Chess are sitting across the desk from Alan Freed, when Freed tells Berry, “If I play it, I make you famous, and him rich.” Berry says, “Wait a minute, what did you say? Me famous, and him rich?” He stands up and has Chess changes chairs with him.
The last major character to shimmy onscreen is Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), the female singer that Chess had been seeking to take her place among the male stars. I wish Etta had been a better character, though; her storyline follows the familiar outline of up and down, love and lose, pass out on the floor. She looks and sounds terrific, though—Knowles can really wring the heart out of a song like “I’d Rather Go Blind”—and Martin allows her to deliver songs almost in entirety, instead of the funky but brief clips the guys get to perform.
Here are two possible criticisms, though. One, the dialogue includes more uses of the f-bomb than any movie I can think of, next to “The Big Lebowski.” I got numb to it after awhile, but wasn’t prepared for a line delivered by Etta that was uglier than the usual fare—maybe a sign that the familiar bombs have lost their impact, and the usual fare is about to get uglier.
Also, knowledgeable fans are frustrated by the liberties the script takes with history. For example, Martin has provided a romance between two characters that works dramatically, but can’t be substantiated in fact. More seriously, Martin has eliminated an entire Chess. His name was Phil, and he was Leonard’s brother and the co-founder of the label. It would be surreal, I think, to go to this movie as a fan of the label, familiar with its history, and keep waiting for Phil to appear. Apparently, in this script he was completely absorbed by his brother Leonard—an oddity we don’t expect to see much outside of the Discovery Health Channel.
Sex and violence? A bit of both. The sex is of the shadowy groping variety, without much graphic nudity. The violence is graphic enough to make up for it, though—for example, a man smashing another man’s face repeatedly against the hood of a car. A little of this goes a long way.
All told, “Cadillac Records” is a good, satisfying movie, a tale well told. There are a whole lot of characters, but Martin develops them with care and layers them gradually in. These pioneers of music history come across as genuine and complex—and that’s something you don’t get with every music biopic.