[Marxism] Review of "Cadillac Records"
sabocat59 at mac.com
Wed Dec 24 07:12:05 MST 2008
As Etta James, Beyoncé Knowles gives one of the year's best
performances in this ensemble film about the legendary artists of a
Chicago music label.
By Stephanie Zacharek
Dec. 05, 2008 |
Sometimes the fictions that spring up around pop music are the most
direct source of its truth.It's highly unlikely that Robert Johnson
made a deal with the devil at the crossroads, but no one cares that
the story isn't 100 percent true, or even just 1 percent true. Even
though pop music needs its obsessive discographers and fact gatherers
-- you've got to have someone around to keep the story straight for
future generations -- music finds its true home in our imagination
anyway. The tall tales and legends that go along with the artists we
love become part of the texture of the music; they're the hiss and
pop between the grooves.
That's the spirit in which Darnell Martin's "Cadillac Records," the
extremely fictionalized story of the founding and flowering of
Chicago's legendary Chess Records, needs to be approached. Chess was
founded in 1950 by a Polish immigrant named Leonard Chess, who'd
brought his brother, Phil, into the business as well. The Chess
brothers sought out and recorded artists who would become some of the
greatest names in blues and R&B, among them Muddy Waters, Howlin'
Wolf, Chuck Berry and Etta James. Martin, who also wrote the script,
takes liberties with the Chess story, most notably dispensing
altogether with Phil Chess. But "Cadillac Records" is such an
exhilarating, spirited piece of work that its embellishments and
omissions cease to matter. Martin, who made her directing debut with
the 1994 film "I Like It Like That" and has since worked frequently
in television, isn't just telling the story of a record company; she
and her actors are outlining the history of a vibe.
Adrien Brody's Leonard Chess is one of the sole white guys in this
story, which means he's also the guy holding the purse strings.
"Cadillac Records" opens in the 1940s: Leonard Chess is dreaming of
opening a club in Chicago, for a black clientele; Muddy Waters
(played, superbly, by Jeffrey Wright) is working as a sharecropper
and sometime-musician in the Deep South. When musicologist and folk-
music historian Alan Lomax shows up to commit Waters' music to
record, the singer listens to the shaky, distant-sounding playback as
if he were hearing both the history of the past and of an unwritten
future at once: "I feel like I'm meeting myself for the first time,"
Muddy moves to Chicago and becomes Leonard's first big star. The
white guy craftily asks the black guy to sign a contract whose terms
are undoubtedly shaky. But he also gives him the keys to a brand-new
Cadillac: It's both an act of generosity and an affirmation of
ownership -- but these are some pretty nice wheels. Leonard will do
the same for the other artists he signs, including the unnervingly
sexy Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), the fragile and explosive blues-
harp player and singer Little Walter (Columbus Short) and rock 'n'
roll pioneer Chuck Berry (Mos Def). He'll do even more for Etta James
(Beyoncé Knowles), the tough-cookie charmer who brings him a
succession of hits and nearly destroys herself along the way. In
Martin's vision, Leonard Chess is a friend and a daddy figure, a fan
and a mid-century incarnation of the white boss man. Brody plays him
as a man of shifty charms but also one whose generosity and
enthusiasm glimmers through his various faults. This isn't your stock
reading of the white businessman who made good money off black
performers and never quite paid them their due (a sin that Leonard
Chess, like plenty of other white guys in his day, was probably at
least somewhat guilty of). But Martin's version of the story is
expansive enough to recognize that by bringing black music to
previously clueless white people, Leonard Chess played a crucial role
in helping it to thrive in the culture.
And if we never would have heard Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy" or Etta
James' "I'd Rather Go Blind" without Leonard Chess, then we have to
be grateful to him. "Cadillac Records" operates from that generous
view: In the movie's first hour or so, I was frustrated by its
structure; it seemed shapeless, meandering. Musicians would walk into
and out of the story (and back again) without much explanation. But
in the end, I think that free-spirited looseness is one of the
picture's great pleasures: Martin is telling a fluid story that may
have a somewhat definite beginning but, thankfully, no end.
Martin and her editor, Peter C. Frank, have also taken great care to
make sure the music -- performed beautifully by the actors -- is more
than just an accessory to the story. Martin doesn't make the mistake
of cutting off songs before we're ready to let them go. Instead, she
lets the action of the story unfold behind them, a way of recognizing
that great music doesn't just appear from nowhere.
She also allows her actors a gracious amount of latitude. There's joy
in the way the camera follows them around, capturing Muddy's preening
and strutting, or Berry's good-natured approach to calling people out
on their bullshit. (Mos Def's Berry laughs with outrage when he
alerts Leonard to the fact that the Beach Boys have blatantly ripped
off his "Sweet Little 16." The footnote to the story is that he sued
their madras shorts off them, and won.) Martin makes sure that every
character here emerges as an individual, a task that often flummoxes
more experienced filmmakers when they're working with an ensemble.
Knowles, in particular, gives one of the finest performances I've
seen all year. Her Etta James is manipulative and breakable,
unapologetically sexy but also deeply guarded -- embodying the very
contradictions that play themselves out in James' music.
What's more, Knowles' ardent, shivery version of "I'd Rather Go
Blind" doesn't attempt to top James' original (as if anyone could).
Instead, it's a reinterpretation that adds yet another layer -- a
stratus made up of myth and all-too-real hardship -- to an already
rich and conflicted story. "Cadillac Records" doesn't set the story
straight. Instead, it simply gets it right, half-truths,
exaggerations and all.
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