Good music usually has a story. At 26 Beethoven lost his hearing. Bach had issues with authority. Sid Vicious’ parents were hippies. Sometimes these details explain the nature of the art, other times, they’re just interesting anecdotes that are nicely set to their owner’s soundtrack. But these stories are only as strong as the musicians they belong to, after all, who really cares that Yanni was a nationally ranked competitive swimmer?
Cadillac Records chronicles the story of Chess Records, and its many lauded musicians including Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, and Etta James. It’s a story about the legendary company itself, a finely tuned and fatally flawed machine made up of many players, pawns if you excuse the pun. The tale has no true villains by way of characters, the instigators of Chess Records’ downfall, and the suffering of its artists, are intangible and unconquerable: alcohol, drugs, greed, sex, ego, segregation, the Chicago police force. If you’re a blues fan, this movie is to you what Fast Times At Ridgemont High was to stoner high-school kids.
Adrien Brody plays Leonard Chess, who, in 1947, started a record company after his own name on the south side of Chicago. Brody himself encapsulates a Polish immigrant to America who was truly unfazed by skin color, whose lust for money and the “American dream” led him to go to great lengths to churn out the next hit, may it have been by providing liquor, sex, or the infamous cars that gave this film its name. “Welcome to Cadillac Records,” the impeccable Jeffrey Wright says as Muddy Waters. “If you stick around long enough, you’ll get one.”
Leonard Chess was part Svengali, part fairy godmother, and Brody does a fine job of conveying a man whose heart was in the right place, if that place was his wallet. While his face is still a parody of itself, his ability to deliver a line is unquestionable, and the early scenes between Chess and Muddy Waters are some of the best in the film, delivering a breezy hopefulness found in some of the greatest buddy movies.
As the company grew in success it began to feed off itself, borrowing against its own artists’ collateral, bribing disc jockeys and spending money frivolously. The film’s pace changes at this point in the timeline, growing nearly frenetic, with the backdrop of race tensions, alcoholism, rampant sex, and violence remaining constant. Cedric The Entertainer’s voice over as Willie Dixon, which was a somewhat inexplicable way to begin the film, as though the entire narrative were some blues-laden version of The Wonder Years, even starts to make sense. The artists come and go in a way that feels fluid and natural, feuds and rivalries take place behind guitars and harmonicas, love is won and lost. Columbus Short as Little Walter takes the audience through his rise and fall with a fevered pitch, delivering a performance that showcases what was Walter’s astonishing blend of flippant disregard for self and craving for approval. The success of Chess Records, and the seed of rock and roll that its sound planted, is reflected in the “Chess family” devolving into what are characterized in modern tabloids as rockstar behavior: drinking and drugging, fighting and fucking. The entire film is somewhat rushed, at times feeling like a trailer of itself, but as a fan of early era blues and rock and roll, the biopic treats every subject with care and interest. It takes the familiar tracks that peppered the forties through the sixties and makes the audience feel instantly intimate with the artists. That is until Beyonce appears on-screen.
In the interest of full disclosure, I profess that I adore Beyonce as Beyonce. Separate from being Mrs. Jay-Z, separate even from Dreamgirls, she is a gorgeous specimen of woman with a sick set of pipes.
When her name came up under the Executive Producer credit, even as Cedric commenced to speak the parable of Chess Records, I reflexively winced. I truly believe that there is no way for a musician to make a film about musicians — and star in it — without the whole shebang smacking of a vanity project. Unfortunately for Beyonce, aka Sasha Fierce, she turns this theory into fact. Before I sharpen my claws on her pretty face, allow me to say that her new album is fantastic and I highly recommend that everybody buy a copy.
Paired next to some remarkable performances, including Mos Def as Chuck Berry and the mind-blowing Eamonn Walker as Howlin’ Wolf, Beyonce’s ability to act sinks lower than some of her necklines. Unlike Mos Def, who seems to be having a genuinely good time, or Jeffrey Wright who is able to wince his way through some of the most moving and debilitating experiences that made up Muddy Waters’ life, or even Gabrielle Union who has a knack for understanding the nuances of a secondary character, Beyonce seems incapable of finding a genuine, un-Beyonce inflection of Etta James. Beyonce’s charm as a pop singer is that she usually seems at least a little pissed off. While Ms. James certainly had a pained life singing the blues, Beyonce’s babbling, snarling, and bumbling seduction attempts miss the mark so severely that it is, occasionally, comical. Classics such as “At Last” and “I’d Rather Go Blind” only proves that Ms. Knowles, while talented at what she does, is no Etta James.
In an ironic twist, the previews began with a trailer for the Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious. It was, in a way, reinforcing the message that Cadillac Records hammers home: fame is dangerous. As was the case with Chess Records, a little bit of success is never enough, and Cadillac Records is a little bit successful in showing what went on behind the soundtrack for a new era, both in music and America.