[Marxism] Review of "Cadillac Records"

Greg McDonald sabocat59 at mac.com
Wed Dec 24 07:12:05 MST 2008

"Cadillac Records"

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,"  
he says.

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.

More information about the Marxism mailing list