In this tale of sex, violence, race, and rock and roll in 1950s Chicago, "Cadillac Records" follows the exciting but turbulent lives of some of America's musical legends, including Muddy Waters, Leonard Chess, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, Etta James and Chuck Berry.Written by
sure, it may have it's share of clichés and pit-falls, but it makes you feel the Blues, deep down your spine, long after you leave
It's hard to get a feel for a specific time and period in movies let alone an actual mood of a particular music. The best bio-pics on musicians tend to get it just about right (Bird, Sid & Nancy, The Doors, Walk the Line) even if the films aren't great or, even worse, have those tired old conventions of real-life people fit in tidy fashion for a 2-hour storyline. Sometimes all we can hope for is that they get the mood right, and even that isn't attained; some years back the wildly over-praised Ray had strong performances but, to me, didn't really capture that feel of what it was like to be in the midst of something really spectacular- we only saw it being great for Ray Charles (not that his music didn't help the movie, somewhat besides the point).
There's an attitude to a kind of music, whether it's punk or jazz or psychedelic rock or even in "wtf" mode in I'm Not There. The best thing about Cadillac Records, the thing that will have me go back and watch it again more than anything, is that it captures what it was like to be around the one of the significant blues explosions in America. There was always blues in the US in the 20th century, but it grew steadily, out of sorrow and bad days and nights and hate and love gone bad or good for African Americans. Cadillac Records covers some of the crucial blues artists- Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry (the cross-over), Willie Dixon, Etta James- and how their personalities were shaped by whatever was around them, and then into the songs. We may not get an entire life story out of all those in the film, but unlike Walk the Line or Ray we don't need it at all to know these people, or the characters.
The actors, it should be said, really do a lot of heavy lifting here. The music, it goes without saying, is spectacular and wonderful and often shown as developing out of a myriad of things (frustration, sadness, joy, craziness, anguish, love), but the script does follow some of those lines that are troublesome in bio-pics (one character, Little Walter, is the proverbial black sheep and that's almost all he is, and there's the obvious dippings in-and-out of relationship things).
So, the actors fill in the gaps in the formula, and make it far more enjoyable and full of life than it might have in other hands; this is the wisdom of the director Darnell Martin, usually a TV director. He casts not entirely on if they exactly fit the original people, but if they got the right stuff for the particular person: Muddy Waters, the real bad-ass of the group and the real main character of the story, is given powerhouse form by Jeffrey Wright in every frame; Beyonce Knowles, while hardly the worst thing in Dreamgirls, completely redeems herself and then some as Etta James, going all out in a full-fleshed out dramatic performance (how well she sings is a given); Columbus Short, given the walking cliché of Little, takes it for everything it's worth, and it is never less than interesting; Eaommon Walker (from Oz) is great as Howlin' Wolf in any scene; Mos Def finds the line of hamming it up and playing it for real for Chuck Berry, and makes it work all the way; Adrien Brody, as the token white main player, is given not a lot to work with either, but is also riveting and captivating and a reminder of why he won the Oscar years back.
But with all this gushing about the actors, I shouldn't forget about the music, the blues, all of it lovingly depicted (maybe at times too lovingly- Cedric's narration) while also in rightful critical form on how the blues got completely ripped off by any (arguably talented) rock band waiting in the wings. You can feel the blues dripping off the screen in some scenes in the first half of the film, the scenes with Waters playing in the club or just in his bedroom, or Chuck Berry playing on stage with a mixed crowd, or the dialog in certain scenes. As a fan of the blues, it hit its target right on spot while hopefully converting some who don't know Muddy Waters or Howlin Wolfs' catalogs like Ray Charles. One more cliché to note, a positive one: it gets you whistling as you leave the theater and tapping your feet at your seat. That's good enough sometimes.
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