Monday, December 08, 2008

Cadillac Records

I love it when a movie can take you right into a slice of time and set you down. Milk did that for me, and the movie I saw today, Cadillac Records, did it again. This review is about the latter film.

This movie could've been about Muddy Waters. Or Chuck Berry. Or Etta James. Or, for that matter, Beyonce Knowles, who in her own right is a superstar and executive producer of this film. But to her credit, everybody's credit, it's really about Chess Records and how it brought these incredible musicians together under one recording label.

Leonard Chess (with his brother, Phil Chess) founded the label. The film opens when we meet Chess, the son of a Polish immigrant, who has an ear for blues music. Chess opens up a club that appeals to the African-American community, but finds out when he tries to promote his new find, Muddy Waters, that success takes payola and control. So he opens Chess Records.

We spend a little more time on Muddy Waters than the others, who, along with Chess, acts as the background of the film. Waters came from a Mississippi plantation, and there's a brief but spectacular scene when some men come through wanting to record some "folk music." When Waters hears his voice on the recording he says, "It's like meeting myself for the first time." The look on his face tells us immediately that we're in for an acting treat from actor Jeffrey Wright.

But he's not the only one who keeps us mesmerized. Eamonn Walker as Howling Wolf gives us just a tantalizing taste of the power and maybe the mayhem that accompanies this blues singer. Little Walter, who made "My Babe" a crossover hit, is played by actor Columbus Short. A lot of these singers have their demons, but none more than Walter, who is hell-bent toward destruction in a big way. The movie wisely allows us to spend a little time with Walter, Muddy Waters' best friend until their feeling of "family" couldn't measure up.

And then there's Mos Def as the reincarnation of Chuck Berry. The script shows us the sarcasm, the wit, and the paranoia (often completely justified) that was Berry. Plus his one vice, the one that landed him in prison.

But everything comes to a halt when Etta James comes onto the scene. When she starts to sing, "At Last," I got goosebumps. She's talented. She's also possessed. It would be a breakout role for Beyonce Knowles if she hadn't already done so in Dreamgirls. This role is something, and she's truly something in it.

All of these characters are held together by the calm of Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess.

Cadillac Records is a fascinating story. I don't really care for blues, but it's the background of all the music I grew up with and grew to love. I only discovered Chess Records when Chuck Berry came on the label and made his indelible impression on rock and roll.

Thumb's up.

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