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United States, 2008
Directed By: Darnell Martin
Written By: Darnell Martin
Starring: Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Beyonce Knowles, Mos Def, Columbus Short
Running Time: 108 minutes
Rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality
What does up-and-coming African-American director Darnell Martin have in common with veteran white guy Clint Eastwood? It sounds like a lame Hollywood insider joke, but it’s not: They both recently directed bland, by-the-numbers biopics. And unfortunately for Martin, hers isn’t about white people screaming and crying (well — most of it isn’t, anyway), so it hasn’t garnered much Oscar buzz.
Like Eastwood’s vaguely enjoyable clunker Changeling, Martin’s Cadillac Records recounts a handful of events more or less exactly as they happened, and says absolutely nothing about them. The story here is the one of the rise and fall of Chess Records, a hugely influential Chicago-based label for rhythm and blues (or, as it was called at the time, “race music” — seriously). It follows exactly the same story arc as every other musical biopic, ever — rise to stardom, internal troubles, relative fall, comeback, worshipful acknowledgement of influence. It’s a little bit more interesting than your average musician movie, since it’s about a record label — and therefore a collection of artists instead of a single one — but ultimately, it’s just a dull history lesson, albeit with a lot of excellent music. Adrien Brody (The Pianist) stars as Leonard Chess, the Jewish Immigrant who founded Chess Records after building a relationship with numerous artists through his blues club; Jeffrey Wright (Quantum of Solace) plays Muddy Waters, who recorded some of Chess’s earliest hits; hip-hop emcee Mos Def (Be Kind Rewind) plays Chuck Berry, their first crossover success; and R&B diva Beyonce Knowles (who also produced the film) plays legendary vocalist Etta James. Some time is given to their legendary hits, and some time is given to their personal battles (such as Berry’s prison terms), but most of the time is spent on arguments about who is sleeping with whom (go figure).
There’s really not a whole lot to say about the film — like Changeling, it amounts to exactly what it promises, and nothing more. We get to see Waters move up from Mississippi and help create the Chicago blues sound; we get to see Berry invent rock ‘n roll; we get to see James look in all the wrong places for father figures. The problem, of course, is a lack of focus: there are far too many story threads winding through this thing, and Martin’s script fails to bring them together in any meaningful way. It never feels like a story — it’s just a bunch of stuff that happens.
I shouldn’t have to explain this to Hollywood, but apparently someone does: history, when practiced well, is not about listing off what happened in the past. Anyone can do that; a good historian can tell you why it happened, how it happened, and what it means. Of course, this is doubly true for the filmmaker, as she’s working in a medium that’s essentially fictional. She has the ability to tell a story however she wants, and to make it mean whatever she wants; for Martin, as for Eastwood, this is a wasted opportunity. To take a fascinating story like that of Chess Records and make no point other than “All modern popular music is derived from the blues” (something that anyone with a cursory knowledge of musicology could tell you) is simply disappointing.
Cadillac Records isn’t a total loss. The meticulous recreation of 1950s Chicago is very nicely done (though I really hope the pompadour never comes back as a hairstyle — what were people thinking?), and most of the actors give spot-on imitations of the musicians they’re portraying. Furthermore, it’s filled with very good renditions of some of the greatest songs ever written: “Hoochie-Coochie Man,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “I Heard Church Bells Ring,” and dozens more (Beyonce’s no Etta, but hey, she tries). It’s these renditions that make the film worth seeing — and a very enjoyable flick, whatever its shortcomings may be. Anyone looking for a primer in the roots of modern popular music is advised to check this one out — just don’t expect it to be anything else.