**½/**** Image A- Sound A Extras C+
starring Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Gabrielle Union, Beyoncé Knowles
written and directed by Darnell Martin
by Bryant Frazer Curiously underdistributed on its release last December, when it opened on fewer than 700 screens across the U.S. despite a reasonably big-name cast, Cadillac Records is a labour of love that has problems but is hard to dislike. Writer-director Darnell Martin is probably too ambitious for her own good, struggling to mount not just a Muddy Waters biopic and/or the Chess Records story, but also a conflicted look at the business acumen and chicanery that attended the rapid evolution of rock-and-roll in the 1950s. While the film suffers from kitchen-sink syndrome, at its best it's an engaging piece of advocacy for the bluesmen who transformed American music.
The title refers to Chess Records, the Chicago label run by Polish immigrant Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) and his brother Phil (Shiloh Fernandez). With a sympathetic ear for so-called "race music," a tolerance for studio experimentation, and an instinct for which palms to grease in order to get airplay, Leonard built the careers of hit-making blues artists like Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), and Little Walter (Columbus Short). Other artists, including Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles), and Chuck Berry (Mos Def), signed on later. Martin balances her generally sympathetic portrayal of Leonard Chess with nods to the exploitation of black artists by their white minders. Chess, for instance, was in the habit of gifting his artists with Cadillacs--the ultimate status symbol of the times--when they made their first number-one record. It wasn't until later, once the musicians started asking about their royalties, that they learned the fancy automobile wasn't a bonus, but rather an advance against their future earnings.
Cadillac Records doesn't gloss over Chess' use of black musicians as stepping-stones to his own American dream, though he's in no way the villain of the piece. As the film begins, a poor black Mississippi sharecropper named McKinley Morganfield delivers himself from that exile only after field musicologist Alan Lomax (Tony Bentley)--who was actually in the neighbourhood searching for Robert Johnson--cuts a recording of him. While Morganfield heads to Chicago and becomes Muddy Waters under his own power, it's Chess who puts him in a state-of-the-art studio and helps him generate hit records. The film goes so far as to posit that it's possible Chess helped save the soul of Etta James, seeing the troubled woman behind her brassy-broad exterior and trying to rescue her from a nascent heroin addiction. But, underscoring Chess' outsider status, Martin shows how much he was able to help his artists--and how much he lied to them. (In a deleted scene, when his wife offers to help him with the studio accounting, Chess responds, "It's not math. It's creative writing.") Chess sold off the record company and promptly died in 1969 (as the movie has it, he perished driving away in a Cadillac, the sign in front of the Michigan Drive studio still visible in his rear-view mirror), and that's where the story ends.
If the screenplay for Cadillac Records is a bit of an odd thing, using random snatches of voiceover from Dixon to tie together multiple stories, the cluttered approach is mitigated by a well-performed, gloriously bluesy soundtrack--the stars by and large do their own singing--that adds focus even as the narrative expands to incorporate more musicians and styles. There's an adult approach to sexuality, too, with sexual behaviour used to add nuance to character. The production design and costume departments lavish loving attention on period detail with a limited budget, while cinematographer Anastas Michos does consistently beautiful work.
Still, Cadillac Records does have a mild case of biopic-itis, proceeding largely episodically as if dutifully ticking off boxes on a list of music-history milestones. (Alan Freed spins a record? Check. Berry gets arrested? Check.) The rushed, frequently hokey dialogue doesn't help. And the performances, though generally fine, sometimes have that pinched quality that can emerge when actors spend their time in extended mimicry of well-known figures. The big exception is Walker's hulking, bearish Howlin' Wolf, a figure so imposing that his presence brought a new level of discipline to the Chess studios. I don't know how close Walker comes to the real deal, but the character he creates, both joyful and menacing, feels like an imitation of no one. Beyond Walker, all the acting boasts worthy grace notes, as when a kid says of Chuck Berry's cherry-red Caddy, "It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," and Mos Def responds, with just the hint of a shy grin, "Ain't it?" Or when Muddy Waters dismisses a simple riff that Willie Dixon is building on an upright bass, and Cedric raises his eyebrows a half an inch as he plucks--as much a challenge to Muddy's certainty as a collegial appeal to his good taste.
As Etta James, Beyoncé doesn't show up until more than an hour into the film, pushing it onto a different track altogether. The shift in gears is somewhat disorienting, although it's nice to have a strong female character in the mix along with the generic, patient wives of Chess and Waters. Beyoncé doesn't always look comfortable in serious-actress mode, but her voice, dialled down to something approximating that of James, is pleasant enough, and she does seem committed to the role. A lengthy scene towards the end consisting entirely of Knowles's and Brody's faces in close-up, lit apparently by firelight, has a charge that comes not merely from the camera's unusual proximity, but from a certain rawness on her part as well--it's close to emotional nakedness. Something about working with Beyoncé meanwhile appears to have emboldened Martin in return; it's a spare, unguarded moment that may be the movie's longest stretch of pure filmmaking.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The picture's Blu-ray transfer, letterboxed to 2.35:1 and compressed using the AVC codec, is excellent, bringing out the period colours and defining facial expressions while maintaining the look of a fairly fine-grained print taken from the Super35 camera negative. Signature costumes like Knowles's deep-green dress and Mos Def's screaming-red shirts pop without seeming artificial or oversaturated. The musical numbers are powerfully rendered in the front channels, where the whole thing pretty much resides--although the surrounds are used judiciously for ambience throughout. It's a solid mix, if not an especially flashy one. I listened to the 640 kbps core of the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio, available in English and French. (Subtitles are in English, English SDH, and French.)
Blu-ray special features are fairly slim. Given the film's low profile, it might be hoping too much to expect to find historical information here, such as samples of the original recordings, or vintage footage of the Chess artists themselves. Nevertheless, you'd think a look at the recording sessions for the movie's own soundtrack would be a no-brainer--what Beyoncé fan watching this disc wouldn't want to see her in the studio laying down those Etta James tracks? Alas, the extras encompass only a few deleted scenes, two standard-issue B-roll docs, and a commentary by Martin.
Martin's yakker suffers from lots of dead air, but she has a great voice for a blues movie--breathy and a tad raspy. Mainly she spends her time discussing the characters and filling in a few more details from her research. The most interesting sections have to do with working on a tight budget. She explains, for instance, that Columbus Short was often allowed no more than a single take because the insurance company was breathing down her neck, pressuring her to drop scenes--starting with Short's. If she hadn't gotten that footage in the can with haste, she wouldn't have been permitted to finish shooting it. Martin also laments the lack of resemblance the individuals portraying the Rolling Stones bear to their real-life counterparts below the scalp: "We didn't have enough money to wig everybody, so some of the guys we just cast for the hair." Some of the anecdotes are likely to enhance your appreciation of Cadillac Records, as when she points out that the grizzled old guy sitting in the chair next to the young actor playing guitarist Hubert Sumlin in Howlin' Wolf's band is the real Hubert Sumlin. Overall, this is an easy listen.
It's a testament to how quickly the film is paced and how tightly it was scripted that the five supplemental deleted scenes (standard-def only) add up to less than five minutes. One of them depicts Leonard writing out a check to donate to Martin Luther King Jr.; another has Muddy Waters ringing the bell at a locked-up, apparently broke Chess Records, declaring, "I'm Muddy Waters!" and being asked by the deadpan receptionist, "Do you have an appointment?"
The longer of two HD featurettes, "Playing Chess: The Making of Cadillac Records" (26 mins.) is the same kind of collection of clips, B-roll footage, and talking-heads interviews with cast members and producers you've seen hundreds of times before. Mostly it has actors talking about their characters and how great their co-stars are. "Once Upon a Blues: Cadillac Records by Design" (16 mins.) is a little more interesting, trotting out costume designer Johnetta Boone and production designer Linda Burton. When you don't have much money, Burton advises, it's important to "always know what the camera is going to see"--to understand which parts of the set you can afford to cut corners on, and which parts have to hold up under scrutiny.
There's also the "Chess Record Player." Turn it on to create a playlist of songs featured in the movie and share it with friends by logging into Blu-ray Live. (I assume they have to visit a website to listen, but it would be pretty cool if they received MP3s via email.) I took it for a spin but gave up after trying, fruitlessly, to remember my Blu-ray Live username and password, neither of which is exactly on the tip of my tongue at all times. The disc is rounded out by a complement of Sony Blu-ray trailers, all in HD: Seven Pounds, Passengers, Rachel Getting Married, The Da Vinci Code, Across the Universe, Lakeview Terrace, Rent: Filmed Live on Broadway, and, of course, the ever-present Blu-ray Disc is High Definition! Originally published: March 10, 2009.