Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cadillac Records

Cadillac records chronicles the story of Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody)- founder of Chess Records- and the artists who recorded there. This is a tremendous cast of larger than life characters, including Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), Little Walter (Columbus Short), Etta James (Beyonce Knowles) , Howlin' Wolf (Eammon Walker), and Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), all of whom are in the rock and roll hall of fame. Cadillac records is more of a story about the music and the time, than about the people.

Since there were so many powerful characters it was impossible to delve into much depth on any of them. The exception to this was Waters and Walter, the two original artists at the label. They represented the relationship between the artists and Chess, and personified the conflict between the races at the time. The movie dealt with their struggles to keep the blues relevant through rock and roll, and how the dealt with fame and money. None of the characters were painted as wonderful people, but they were painted as flawed heroes.

None of this is more evident than with Chess himself. Considering this was the man who probably did more than any other to integrate the air-waves, and erase the prefix "race" from music, we don't get a whole lot about him. We know he was a savvy business man, morally ambiguous at times, and apparently traded Cadillacs as currency (hence the title). Other than general themes, and the fact that he threw out the rules with every recording, the movie doesn't tell us much about why he did what he did. Was his intention to further music? Or was it just to make money? In this film, the answer is really not that important.

Even Etta James, brilliantly portrayed by Beyonce was a small player in the story. She didn't appear to more than half way through, and her story was barely touched. Even though her music was the highlight of the movie, and she had a greater personal impact on Chess than any other character, we didn't get much about her psyche besides the surface race issues. This was my one major complaint about the movie. Rarely will I say this, but I think it could have stood to be longer- if only to better accommodate the depth of these characters.

In the end, the music really was the star. Every member of the cast amply captured their characters (and from what I've read, accurately captured their true personalities). But the story whipped by too fast to get more than just a feel for the characters. If you enjoy 50's and 60's rhythm and blues, you'll love this movie. And if you lived through it, you'll love it even more. As opposed to being a straight forward biopic, Cadillac Records is more of a look at what happened behind the scenes on these legendary recordings.


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