Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Cadillac Records

There has been few times in the past year that I have so enjoyed a character as much as Mos Def’s Chuck Berry in “Cadillac Records.” The film’s funniest, breeziest scenes are little glimpses of Berry’s success, discrimination, and arrest, and Mos Def plays them with energy and sincerity. He avoids putting on a performance, and instead peaks his ability as an actor: silly with believability, excitement with restraint, anger with humor, sex with music.

Luckily, the film too manages this balance. It is a group musical biopic that chronicles the birth, and death, of Chess Records – Muddy Waters, Etta James, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Willie Dixon – which by extension chronicles the transformation of black blues into white rock and roll during a time of enforced segregation. This is, obviously, a lot to juggle in a mere two hours, but in its own clunky way “Cadillac” succeeds.

The film has two glaring characteristics that could be considered flaws. 1. “Cadillac” is basically like every other mainstream musical biopic you’ve ever seen. The artist goes from poverty and obscurity – in this case, every single musician in the movie including Leonard Chess himself – makes some music, is thrust into the spotlight and must deal with fame, fortune, and all of its trappings. Maybe the artist then overspends himself, or sees his art get popular while he himself does not receive any credit, or both. 2. With such a breadth of history and characters, every scene needs to cover a wide range of motivations. Every event seems plausible while practically every detail seems totally unreal. I’m sure Chess was rejected by his first girlfriend for being a Jew, but I’m not so sure he yelled “My wife’s gonna own a Cadillac!” at her passing car. Sure Walter became an alcoholic, but probably not solely because Muddy gave him a drink or wouldn’t plug in his amplifier.

“Cadillac” wears its genre on its sleeve, and condenses broad history into single scenes, but this affords it some room to maneuver where it really counts – in the musical numbers and the characters. Jeffrey Wright has solidified himself as a consistent, near perfect character actor. He's awesome, for God's sake. I don't know what else to say. You don't really realize how good Columbus Short is as Little Walter until he drops back into the story drunk and defeated. I want to say that Adrian Brody is good as usual, but that would be to take his casual grace for granted. Beyonce Knowles, while significantly sexier than the actual Etta James (sorry Etta), is pretty good -- she's a little over the top, but it works. The only weird outlier in the group is Eamonn Walker as Howlin' Wolf. He played Othello last year in London at the Globe Theatre, and it is a very strange experience watching him play Wolf exactly the same way. He huffs and puffs when angry, hunches and growls. I just don't think he's a good actor.

I wanted to embed this as a joke, but it wouldn't let me.

The film adheres strictly to genre, might not be exactly accurate, and has plenty of bad or mismatched cuts, but I have a soft spot for movies that play out in musical scenes. The music in "Cadillac" carries us through both the years and small significant moments. We watch Chuck Berry break down segregated audiences, Etta James sing "I'd Rather Go Blind" straight to Chess's face, or Muddy Waters play his way through woman after woman, and a balance emerges. The music goes on and gets bigger and the artist might get lost, but inside that is an intimacy as strong as ever.

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