Sunday, December 14, 2008

A beautifully tragic cadillac

Poster Art for "Cadillac Records."

Cadillac Records chronicles the rise of Chess Records and its recording artists. In this tale of sex, violence, race and rock and roll in Chicago of the 1950s and 60s, the film follows the exciting but turbulent lives of some of America's greatest musical legends.

Beyonce Knowles as Etta James in "Cadillac Records."

The story of how the blues became popular and gave birth to rock and roll begins at a dingy bar on the rough South Side of Chicago in 1947, where an ambitious young Polish emigre, bar owner Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), hires a talented but undisciplined blues combo that includes quiet and thoughtful guitar prodigy Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and impulsive and colorful harmonica player Little Walter (Columbus Short). Fascinated by the sound of the music - and eager to cash in on the record burgeoning record business - Chess arranges a recording session for Waters. Waters' early recordings start moving up the R+B charts and receiving heavy play. Chess treats his musicians like family -- he buys them a Cadillac when they record their first hit record -- although the line between business and personal sometimes causes conflict with his increasingly talented and successful stable of artists. After backing up Muddy on his early recordings, Little Walter becomes a star in his own right, but his quick temper and loud manner often run him afoul of friends and the law. He also finds that the only woman he can talk to is Muddy's girl, Geneva (Gabrielle Union), who struggles to remain loyal despite Muddy's poorly concealed affairs. Big Willie Dixon (CEDRIC THE ENTERTAINER), a songwriter and bandleader, also is a key member of the Chess Records family, as is Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), an intense and proud blues singer who develops a musical rivalry with Muddy. But it's not until 1955 when a Chess artist finally "crosses over" into the realm of mainstream ("white") America - a skinny guy from St. Louis named Chuck Berry (MOS DEF), whose dynamic "duck walk" and catchy, country-tinged tunes mark the birth of rock-and-roll. When Berry is arrested and jailed at the height of his career, Chess finds another talented performer to cross over singer Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), an emotionally scarred young woman whose vulnerability tempts Chess' loyalty and concern in unexpected ways. As rock-and-roll grows more popular, the Chess artists find themselves revered by a new generation of musicians, but they have also each earned and lost a small fortune on booze, women and the high life, and their addictions begin to take their toll. Even as tragedy befalls, their music and their spirit remain strong: as the sixties wind down and Leonard Chess gets out of the record business, the blues live on. Martin's movie chronicles a transformational moment in popular music and culture. Before being eclipsed by the other performers, Jeffrey Wright registers powerfully as bluesman Muddy Waters, Mos' Def duckwalks as country-to-rock crossover dream Chuck Berry, and Beyoncé wails her heart out as soul singer Etta James. But among these scene-stealing headliners (who include Adrien Brody as the label's "ears," Leonard Chess), the knockout is Eamonn Walker, positively feral as blues sensation Howlin' Wolf. Musician-songwriter Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer) provides the narration quilting together the story that spans 1941 to 1969, from Muddy Waters migrating to Chicago from Mississippi to Leonard Chess' sale of the label to his artists. (In the interest of narrative pruning, Martin entirely eliminated Philip Chess, Leonard's brother and partner, from the story.) The real-life Chess was a contradictory and complicated figure, not unlike Jamie Foxx's Curtis Taylor of Dreamgirls, suggested by Motown's Berry Gordy. Dreamgirls was critical of Curtis' shady deals and artistic backstabbing. But Cadillac Records (which takes its name from Chess' habit of buying his artists fancy cars with their royalties instead of giving them the money outright) is mystifyingly neutral about Chess, who bribed disc jockeys and cooked the books. Brody plays Chess as a slightly crooked but well-meaning musical cheerleader without fully emerging as a character. Cadillac Records is a toe-tapping experience where the music rather than the actors dominate. This undermines Wright's performance and advantages that of Beyoncé. The film boasts a soundtrack that includes the actors performing Muddy Water's "Mannish Boy," Howling Wolf's "Smoke Stack Lightning," Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen," and Etta James' "At Last."As the legendary James, beset by drama and drug addiction, Beyoncé delivers - if more powerfully as actress than as a soul thrush. Etta James was a complex woman in the '60s and '70s — incredibly talented and haunted at the same time. There are many demons behind those famous recordings, and Knowles gets it. Etta's story would be better told in another film, surely. A good film that may've been better in individual stories, but still quite enjoyable. A rockin' good 4 on my "Go See" scale.

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