Film Review #183: Cadillac Records
Director: Darnell Martin
Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Beyoncé Knowles, Adrian Brody
About half way through Darnell Martin’s Cadillac Records, there’s enough of a lull that you wonder suddenly, where is Beyoncé Knowles anyway? We’ve met Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter the teen-age mouth-harp prodigy (Columbus Short), Howlin’ Wolf (riveting British actor Eamonn Walker) and Chuck Berry (Mos Def). So where’s Beyoncé? After all, she’s one of the movie’s major draws as legendary platinum blond blues singer Etta James in her early days on Chicago’s Chess Records label. One of the most enduring discoveries of Chess’ founder, Polish immigrant Leonard Chess (Adrian Brody), multiple Grammy-winner James, spectacularly troubled then, has survived most of the film’s other characters. She released her most recent album, All the Way, in 2006, and her signature rendition of the torch song “At Last” graces more than twenty film and television sound-tracks.
So it’s one of the film’s pleasures – and its story-telling accomplishments – that just as you wonder where a character is, just when the story has unfolded in such a way as to demand her appearance, there she is.
In this richly ambiguous, compact scene, Chess – who scoured the South for Black talent during his label’s run from 1950-69 – meets James because she’s brought to his hotel room for an impromptu audition by his brother Phil (the only appearance in the film of Chess’ actual business partner, but more about that script decision below). The film is narrated by Chess Records’ major songwriter Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), who says as the hotel room door swings open - by way of transition from the last scene and setting up the double meanings about talent and sex and tenderness and money and resentment and gratitude and who’s in charge that thread through all the future interactions between James and Chess – that Leonard Chess “was looking for women too...”
Helping herself to a seat on his bed, James asks if “we’re gonna do it right now?” Yes, says Chess, he’s leaving town in the morning. Well, it’s hard, counters James, “when you’re not in the mood.” “She’s not in the mood!” mutters an exasperated Chess. Then James strolls into the bathroom and from there starts singing, shyly at first. Of course there are two revelations here – what the Chess brothers heard, and Beyoncé herself. Then Willie Dixon finishes his sentence: “… he was looking for a woman to go up against his men.”
This film might have unfolded in another, more expected way. Martin has said that Columbia Pictures wanted a standard Leonard Chess biopic. In that scenario, the doomed romance rumored between Chess and James would have taken center stage early, leaving little room for the four male musicians on whom Martin spends the first half of her film, and little sense of what going “up against them” might actually mean for James as a musician. James would hardly be a musician at all in that scenario, but instead – you know the type - a naïve, unschooled, rawly talented force of nature.
Instead of that standard biopic, Martin set out to portray the music and the musicians coming out of the great mid-century migration north (we meet Muddy Waters in 1941, share-cropping in Mississippi, listening to Alan Lomax’s quavery recording of himself, saying “I feel like I’m meeting myself for the first time,” before he lights out for Chicago), how R & B became “popular” and “crossed over” (besides appealing to white bobby-soxers, Chuck Berry successfully sued the Beach Boys for stealing his “Sweet Little 16” and passing it off as their own in the hit “Surfin’ USA”), how the music overlapped with and influenced the Civil Rights movement (Howlin’ Wolf immediately sets Chess straight about who gives orders to his band members and Little Walter’s response to white cops personifies a tidal shift). Since Martin makes room for these characters up front instead of using them as background – and they are all superbly played – when they find Chess is looting their royalties, that betrayal has real bite because you know them as well as you know him.
And by removing Phil Chess, Martin replaces the standard two-white-brothers narrative – a huge space occupier – with a very different “story of two men,” as Willie Dixon calls it at the start. By using alternating scenes to introduce and follow Chess in his pre-impresario days – junkyard owner dreaming of buying a bar – and Mississippi share-cropper Muddy Waters, Martin structurally underscores the parallel importance of their stories. And that’s only the beginning of dramatic parallels between them – for example, each has a decent and long-suffering wife, and brief but personal, nuanced exchanges of the sort that occur, when you think about it, between equals. Now some reviewers don’t like this movie, I suspect because it so disrupts expectations of what – and who – it “should” have been about. So you better see it quick. Like Bryan Barber’s Idlewild – remember how that film, so steeped in a wonderful fluency with its screen musical forebears, was dismissed by critics as “derivative”? – it might only be here for a minute.
This review appeared in the 12/11/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Darnell Martin wrote and directed two previous features, I Like it Like That (1994) and Prison Song (2001), and directed Suzan-Lori Parks’ script for Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005). All three are available on DVD.