It’s a very peculiar sensation to know that history is occurring around you. I felt that way back in 1991 when I first heard "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the radio, as suddenly the entirety of the "hair metal" movement of the ’80s was wiped off the musical map, loser of a war that it never even knew was coming. I can only imagine that people like Muddy Waters felt much the same way when Elvis Presley and the forces of rock n’ roll wiped the blues out of the minds of America’s youth, just like that. It’s a subject that surprisingly hasn’t been covered by Hollywood up until now, and Darnell Martin’s Cadillac Records takes a pretty impressive crack at it with a movie that immediately made me run to ITunes and buy the original recordings. So it’s definitely got that going for it right off the bat.
Cadillac Records is the story of Polish immigrant Leonard Chess and his label, the ’50s powerhouse Chess Records. More than that, it’s a kind of love story between Chess and his biggest star in the early years, Muddy Waters (brilliantly played by Jeffrey Wright). The title of the movie refers to his tendency to pay his stars in Cadillacs instead of royalties (often neglecting to mention to them that these "gifts" were being financed by their own record sales). The movie also acts as a kind of bio-pic about Muddy, tracing the usual Walk the Line-style rise/fall/return dynamic and spanning 20 years of his life. Indeed, Waters’ life is fascinating stuff by itself, as he was discovered by folk music historians who were looking for Robert Johnson but instead found Muddy working on a plantation. Waters was something of a rock star in the blues era of Chicago, getting all the girls and engaging in gunfights and bar brawls that would make most rappers blush today. In fact, one rather shocking scene early in his rise shows his bandmate Little Walter shooting an imitator dead for daring to steal his name. The director admits that the moment is probably just an urban legend, but it certainly fits within the characters that had been established.
Indeed, Columbus Short emerges as a surprise star of the movie, playing harmonica legend Little Walter, who suffers the most dramatic downturn as a result of his hard living. Unfortunately the movie’s shoestring budget and tight shooting schedule also meant that most of the material lost was from the sections dealing with Little Walter, while Beyonce’s turn as Etta James ends up getting the bulk of the screen time as the film moves from the early days and into Muddy’s fading career. For me, the heavy emphasis on James (and the made-up love affair with Chess) kind of dragged things down in a movie where it felt like everyone was getting short shrift. I wanted more about imposing bluesman Howlin’ Wolf (played by Oz alumnus Eamonn Walker) and his incredibly gangsta feud with Muddy Waters! That period, with the hot blues clubs of 50s Chicago, is infinitely fascinating stuff and you could easily milk an entire movie out of it. Really, the true story is so interesting that I’m not sure why Darnell Martin chose to embellish some of it. Chuck Berry (played by the versatile Mos Def) literally changed the landscape of music, and yet despite his larger-than-life story being right there, again the focus shifts to Etta James, who is portrayed as being discovered by Chess when in fact she already had a record deal and actually did worse under Chess. I guess it’s because Beyonce was the big star, but I just didn’t find her that compelling or care enough about James to be constantly torn away from the fall of Muddy Waters. Her story just feels out of place compared to the growling bluesmen that are chronicled around her.
And let’s talk about the soundtrack for a minute, as the actors recreate the music legends in song and on screen, with some pretty spectacular results. Obviously Beyonce is able to nail down Etta James pretty easily, but huge points also go to Wright for doing a convincing version of Muddy Waters, as well as non-singer Eamonn Walker doing well as Howlin’ Wolf. The most amazing thing about the soundtrack, though, is that it immediately made me want to go out and learn more about the blues, and no matter what you want to say about the quality of the movie, I think that makes it instantly worthwhile to at least check out. I think there’s still a much better movie to be made about the subject, with less embellishing and editorializing by the director, but as a great starting point for those curious about the true origins of rock n’ roll, this one is hard to beat. (Rating: ***1/2)
Sony releases have one awesome feature that I wish everyone else would adopt — subtitled commentary tracks. I love being able to read the director’s commentary while still getting the full 5.1 audio of the movie (especially with a hot soundtrack like this one has). The commentary in this case is pretty interesting, as Martin admits several times that she basically made stuff up to fit the movie (like the silly affair between James and Chess) or passed on debunked legends (like James being the daughter of Minnesota Fats).
There’s also about 5 minutes of deleted scenes, which seemed good enough to be left in to me. You get a 30 minute feature called "Playing Chess: The Making of Cadillac Records" which is a bunch of soundbites from the actors, as well as a 15 minute feature on the costume and production design that is much more engaging. And hey, if you love Sony Pictures releases, there’s a BUTTLOAD of trailers for them. A pretty good selection of stuff for a low-level release. (Rating: ***)
This one far exceeded my expectations, but I think it’s ultimately more satisfying as an introduction to the blues than it is as a chronicle of the time period or anything. There’s a great movie to be made about Muddy Waters and his contemporaries, but I don’t think this is it yet. Still, I always prefer when movies swing for the fences and miss rather than trying the same old stuff, and I definitely think Cadillac Records is worth a look for that reason.
Tags: Beyonce, Cedric the Entertainer, Chicago, Mos Def, SmarK Rants