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December 8, 2008 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | December 8, 2008 |

Cadillac Records is pretty much the absolute worst possible film that could be made from its premise and source material. Writer-director Darnell Martin ostensibly sets out to tell the story of the people and events involved in the history of Chess Records a blues/R&B label based in Chicago, and specifically its peak in the 1950s. But the story she comes up with is haphazard, ill formed, and all over the road when it comes to pacing, plot, and general direction. The film is more of a jukebox musical than a standard biopic, using songs from the label’s various artists often as entire set pieces, but as solid as those performances might be —and the songs themselves are verifiable classics — the film itself is an unsalvageable pile of likable but dull characters wandering through a screenplay that offers no reason for their existence but the music they can make.

The film opens with an old Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer) making an audio recording of the history of Chess Records for, one assumes, the sake of posterity. He’s got a photo album in front of him and starts to narrate the history of the label’s founding, even going so far as to unironically say things like “It all started …” before the action shifts back to the 1940s and the men who would eventually meet and begin to make Chess into the legend it would become. Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) is a poor Polish Jew working a junkyard and reluctant to marry his girlfriend because he can’t financially support her. I’d dig up the girlfriend’s name, or the name of the character actor who plays her father, but there’s no need because she never shows up again; Chess later marries a woman named Revetta (Emmanuelle Chriqui), has a baby daughter (also barely seen) and gets on with his life. Martin does nothing with Leonard’s first girlfriend but waste time on false characterization, which is weird considering that even though Leonard probably had a girl at one point that he couldn’t afford to marry, in real life he also had a brother, Philip, who co-founded the label with him. And Philip isn’t a character in the film. At all. Not even mentioned. Why would Martin go to the trouble of giving Leonard a girlfriend he will never see again, despite his protestations of love, only to omit his brother from the story and cheat both the actual history and the filmic drama possible from having two brothers interact as they struggle to get their dreams off the ground? That’s the kind of root problem that plagues the movie; everything feels mostly understandable until you bother to look at it, at which point it just dissolves into a series of meaningless scenes that don’t feel attached to each other in any real way.

The film then jumps to Mississippi and a field hand named McKinley Morganfield, better known as Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), who leaves home, moves to Chicago, woos and beds Geneva Wade (Gabrielle Union), semi-formally adopts her two boys, and forms a band with two other local musicians, including harmonica player Little Walter (Columbus Short), in the space of five or seven very frantic onscreen minutes. Martin’s speed is partly born of necessity, since she’s setting out to cover 15 years in an hour and 40 minutes, but there’s a difference between abridging a story and throwing a mass of half-ideas onscreen and hoping something sticks. As the story wanders on, Waters’ songs are given deservedly prominent placement, and the performance scenes set themselves apart as the only watchable moments in the film simply because they lean upon classics of mid-century blues and rock ‘n’ roll. Seeing Wright as Waters belt out “Hoochie Coochie Man” to a sweaty, packed club is genuinely entertaining, especially considering that Wright’s actually doing the singing. Martin’s passion for the music comes through in these scenes, but it ultimately doesn’t matter that her heart is in the right place. That’s not enough to make the rest of the film anything other than tedious, dull, and boringly melodramatic.

The rest of the film plays out in sputtering little bursts, fragmented emotional arcs that never resolve and don’t tie into a larger framework, and it’s maddening to see what could have been an interesting story fall so easily apart. As the 1950s wear on and Chess Records snaps up Chuck Berry (Mos Def), Muddy’s album sales fall as pop tastes swing in favor of the young father of rock ‘n’ roll and his crossover appeal with whites. This is a dense, rich area that Martin could have mined for any number of conflicts on a variety of levels, from Waters’ reluctance to play the elder statesman to the weight of Berry’s superstardom to Leonard’s moral ambiguity when it comes to deciding how to support the musicians who made him while also turning a profit on the next hot artist. But Martin only hints at these and many other ideas, brushing up against one or the other before sliding onto something else, like Waters’ egomaniacal beefs with fellow label act Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) or a lukewarm love story between Leonard and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles) that feels like it should have played out in a VH1 TV-movie a decade ago. Even Willie Dixon barely gets any screen time, and in addition to narrating the whole awful thing, Dixon was the one who wrote just a staggering amount of hits for fellow Chess artists that have been covered by dozens of artists since. Martin had all the pieces right in front of her, and she didn’t know what to do with them.

Wright is easily the most distinguished actor in the film, and carries the role of Muddy with charisma and skill, giving a workable portrait of a man hounded by demons and never quite able to make things work out. The rest of the cast falls somewhat short of the mark: Chriqui is completely forgettable, though Short has his moments as a young Little Walter. (In another of the film’s bizarre technical screw-ups, Wright and Brody aren’t artificially aged during the course of the movie, but Chriqui and Short are forced to wear cheap-looking and laughably ineffective make-up later in the film to show they’ve aged, and apparently been badly burned.) Beyonce’s turn as James is only notable for the power of her voice, and if she doesn’t have James’ all-out cannon on “At Last,” she still does a fine job and sings the hell out of it.

The greatest disappointment of the film is the way that Martin tries to work in a potentially compelling storyline about the lawsuits filed by Chess artists as their music was often taken and transformed without their consent, but aside from a few casual mentions in the film, Martin only addresses the matter in epilogue cards, as if she’s completely run out of ways to tell a story. Berry sued The Beach Boys when their “Surfin’ USA” ripped off Berry’s own “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and he won subsequent credit as a writer of its music and lyrics. Additionally, a couple tracks on Led Zeppelin II were lifts of Willie Dixon works, and Chess’ publishing arm and Dixon both sued the British band and settled out of court. Martin is trying, in her own clumsy way, to make the point that the blues is a fundamental art form capable of multiple permutations, and that historically black music was sped up and boosted by white artists, and that the original works deserve respect. And while all that is certainly true, the film she’s made is a sorry, sloppy tribute to the legacy of the music that inspired it.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.

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Cadillac Records / Daniel Carlson

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