Cadillac Records: The Underappreciated Biopic of the Winter

There’s something to be said for a genre picture that succeeds on every level. A film doesn’t need to cover new and original ground in order to entertain us, thrill us, even compel us. The reason why they get made so often that they become unoriginal is because they contain human drama when done right—it’s very hard to totally fail at making a genre picture, but it’s hard to transcend unless everyone is on the exact same page. Cadillac Records is an example of a genre we’ve seen many times recently—shadows of Ray and Dreamgirls don’t just lurk in the corner, they are cast all over the screen.

But Cadillac Records is a pleasant surprise because it is more consistently good than both of those Oscar-winning films—why is this film not being mentioned in awards buzz? Perhaps because it’s not as showy… there are no big emotional moments on screen like “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” or where Ray Charles goes into rehab before our eyes. Its subtlety rings true, and director Darnell Martin points a deep talented cast in the right direction and never leads them astray—even when we get to the character deaths, drug problems, money problems, and the other pre-requisites in the musical biopic.

Our two main characters are Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), a sharecropper who discovers he’s got a voice for the blues, and Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), a young Jewish man who doesn’t see black or white, only the green of money. He opens a Negro nightclub and sees Muddy’s talent, and Chess Records is born. They not only made hit blues records—they invented rock ‘n roll and the crossover African-American pop hit in the process, with the help of Little Walter (Columbus Short), Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles). By the end, internal fighting and the thievery of their music by white musicians puts an early end to Chess Records, and not everyone has a happy ending.

Jeffrey Wright is one of the best character actors working today, and it’s a thrill to see him help carry a film, despite the fact that this character emotes very internally. Adrien Brody is the type of actor where you never see Adrien Brody more than five minutes into the film—like Wright, he disappears into roles, and he toes the line between visionary and sleazeball very admirably. The supporting cast is terrific (even Beyonce, in her best performance to date, full of R-rated language but never feeling strained), including Gabrielle Union and Emanuelle Chirqui, giving depth to the biopic staple character of the cheated-on, ignored wives of the stars. The real star of the supporting cast, however, is Columbus Short as Little Walter— who knew after Stomp the Yard that this young man had such serious acting chops? In a just world, Wright and Short would be in contention for awards.

And at the end of the day, this is a better film than Milk—less timely, of course, which gives it less emotional impact, and less ambitious, with Van Sant having tried to compile multiple visual styles (and acting styles, with Penn’s theatricality combating the rest of the cast). However, it’s well-made, entertaining, and an engaging biopic, which delivers every element we expect from the genre but still manages to keep us in suspense. We know when we see a certain character take his first drink that he will fall hard—but Darnell Martin still manages to conceal exactly what shape that fall will take. She never shies away from the racial elements as well—Chess’s early lack of attraction to black women, the hypocrisy of police persecuting Chuck Berry when Jerry Lee Lewis was acting the same way—which is refreshing in a film that could’ve become glossy very quickly. There’s great skill at work here in making something so familiar seem so fresh, and hopefully this film won’t tank so hard that it restricts Martin, whose work has been relatively low-profile so far to my knowledge, from making more high budget films— from this film, it seems she is a writer/director who can both give audiences what they want without patronizing them with cliché and convention. We need more people at the helm like this, and more female African-American directors to boot.

~ by russellhainline on December 29, 2008.

2 Responses to “Cadillac Records: The Underappreciated Biopic of the Winter”

  1. THank you, Thank you for writing this article!!!

  2. It’s very effortless to find out any topic on web as compared to textbooks,
    as I found this piece of writing at this website.

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