Sunday, April 12, 2009

Cadillac Records (2008)

Watched Cadillac Records the other night. As a blues aficionado of sorts, I was interested in this from the moment I heard about it, but it disappeared from theaters before I got a chance to see it. A shame. I think of the Chess catalog as the Old Testament of American music. You ignore it at your peril.

I was a bit disappointed by it as a movie. On the plus side, it's fun. It imagines the major players about like a blues fan would like to think they really were. Leonard Chess is a wheeler-dealer with a complicated relationship to his black artists - he's not innocent, but not entirely exploitative. Muddy Waters is no saint, but he's never less than a man. Howlin' Wolf is a force of nature. And so on. It also has a good visual sense. Some of its images - of Muddy walking along in absolutely flat Delta cotton fields, or Cadillacs pulling past the camera with hoods that go on forever - are pretty righteous.

But as a drama it's a bit confused. It can't decide if it wants to tell a collective story of the label's rise and fall a la Dreamgirls, the parallel stories of Muddy Waters and Leonard Chess, or the love story of Leonard Chess and Etta James. It ends up doing all, and the result is scattershot. Even after eliminating several major players (Sonny Boy Williamson and Bo Diddley, not to mention Phil Chess) it feels crowded.

Worse, the writing's lame. Adrien Brody and Jeffrey Wright do their best to evoke some real emotion in here, but they're never given anything but the tritest lines to say. And never mind capturing the mythic power of the blues. There are some evocative scenes, such as Alan Lomax playing Muddy's voice back to him on a turntable in the trunk of his car. But you can't escape the feeling that there's more to be said about the blues and what it meant than this movie can find to say. To go back to the Dreamgirls comparison: I have a lot of problems with what that movie says about Motown, but it at least does a good job of convincing you that it mattered. This doesn't do Chess justice. I'd love to see what Scorsese would have done with it.

The biggest problem is the music. As with most recent music movies, they let the actors sing. I'm sure there are good movie reasons for this, but there are no good musical reasons for it. Jeffrey Wright gives it his best shot, but he never comes close to the sheer authority Muddy Waters had when he sang. Beyoncé reaches deep, but she never stops sounding like a 21st century pop singer trying to dazzle you with melisma rather than rip you up with emotion.

And in a movie like this, if you don't have the music, what the hell do you have?

No comments: