Monday, April 27, 2009

Monday Movie Review: Cadillac Records

Cadillac Records (2008) 8/10
Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) meets Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and forms Chess Records.

The movie opens in a field. It looks like it may be one of those idyllic Kansas wheat field kind of things, and then you see it's sharecroppers, breaking their backs and singing. The scene is definitely not idyllic, but the music is beautiful.

The movie opens in another field. Again you wonder: Kansas? Something beautiful? This time it's a junkyard, where Leonard Chess is making love with his girlfriend. Soon her father will show up and express his disapproval.

These opening sequences embody everything that's right and wrong about Cadillac Records. On the right side, of course, is the music, which just gets better and better and better with each scene. The music plus the earthy quality, a grittiness, make this a very watchable movie. You feel present in every moment, and as we move to Chicago and the mixed bag of success in the blues and early rock and roll, that immediacy and grit carry you through.

Also right is the terrific cast. Jeffrey Wright, from sharecropper to blues god, is magnificent, mumbling and preening and living deeply inside his music. Adrien Brody is one of my favorite young actors, and here he's doing not just his usual great work, but also working his voice into a hustling Chicago immigrant, without mucking around with an accent. He's sure and good-hearted and also kind of a prick. There's an extensive supporting cast. Beyoncé as Etta James is surprisingly good; her work in Dreamgirls didn't indicate to me that she could do this kind of physical role. Eamon Walker, unknown to me, blew my mind in a small role as Howlin' Wolf.

The movie has been criticized for being too shallow, touching lightly on too many little bits of this moment in history without ever landing. And again, back to the two fields: We fly over a lot of spots, and it is kind of shallow. But it's also a musical, not just because it's a movie where a lot of people sing, but because its story is told through the music. These are people whose lived experience resides inside performance. Muddy Waters is the guy with the guitar, Howlin' Wolf is that big voice. While a deeper story can certainly be told, a rich, textured, deeply musical overview is not at all unwelcome.

Okay, sure, it's a little all over the place. There's no clear main character, and the women (as usual) are a little invisible (Etta James isn't introduced until fairly late). Chess's wife is barely a presence at all, and while Gabrielle Union does the best she can as Muddy's wife, Geneva, she's nothing that can't be summed up by "Muddy's wife, Geneva." Chess himself remains a cipher.

But then I'm back to that great cast. Brody pumps life force into a slight bit of scripting and makes the character seem rich, just as almost every actor in this fine ensemble does.

(Mannish Cross-post)