Starring Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Gabrielle Union, Columbus Short, Cedric the Entertainer, Mos Def, Beyonce Knowles
I took myself on a date yesterday to see “Cadillac Records” because I’m a history buff and love a biopic. Plus, I get fashion inspiration by seeing how people dressed in the past. I read very few reviews of the film before watching it because I wanted the movie to speak for itself. I was rather entertained, but, since I’m not a real blues fan or scholar, I didn’t notice the historical inaccuracies. The Lowdown: Writer-director Darnell Martin tells the story of early blues recording company Chess Records during the 1940s to the late 1960s, through a long flashback by bassist-songwriter Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer). Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) founded Chess Records because he wanted to make a name for himself. Similarly, blues singer Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) also knew his future was brighter than that of a Mississippi sharecropper. After meeting Chess, Waters helped to put Chess Records on the map with his new sound of “race music.” After that, the label was so prosperous that its artists, including Little Walter (Columbus Short), Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), received Cadillac cars when their records sold. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to the artists, the Cadillacs were royalty payments.
The Verdict: Although most of the trailers focused on Knowles as James, I think the most entertaining and developed role was Wright’s Waters, one of the central characters. Wright played a very charismatic Waters and I truly understood how he could get a woman out of her drawers with just his guitar playing. Of course, his wry smile and slick talk didn’t hurt these situations neither. He affected every character in some way throughout the Chess Records history. Short played a convincing Little Walter, who, according to the film, was discovered by Waters and became like a son to him. We see Little Walter change from a loose cannon harmonica player to a smack addict, whose only salvation is playing his harmonica on other peoples’ records, even if only for a few minutes.
Mos Def was Berry, from his dancing antics to his way of speaking. During the scenes with Berry, I kept thinking of Mos Def’s lyric, “I said, Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul (huh) Chuck Berry is rock and roll (damn right)” from “Rock N Roll” on Black on Both Sides. I guess playing Berry was the ultimate homage to a musician that has influenced Mos Def’s music.
After seeing Knowles in “Dreamgirls,” I wasn’t really convinced about her acting skills. I thought she just mimicked the original role. Knowles was only in a few scenes in “Cadillac Records,” but she delivered a rather powerful James. In her best scene, she is found in a drug-induced stupor by Waters and played such an accurate heroin addict that I forgot about Beyonce the superstar and only saw James. But I think she and the story deserved more screen time.
Although, “Cadillac Records” told a good story, I still had a few unanswered questions. What was the central cause to the rivalry between Waters and Howlin’ Wolf (Eammon Walker)? Maybe I was just supposed to assume that they were rivals just because they made the same type of music on the same label. Also, I couldn’t figure out what really motivated Chess to be a crook and rob his artists of the money that they earned. I don’t think it was just greed because he gave Waters money on numerous occasions and bought him a house.
“Cadillac Records” was a great introduction to the history of the blues and some of the genre’s most respected artists, but it has some historical inaccuracies and is a fast-paced journey through two decades. Still, it will pique your interest to learn more. I’m already searching for some Muddy Waters songs on iTunes.