Dir Darnell Martin. US. 2008. 104 mins
Like a supergroup version of the musical biopic, Cadillac Records tells the story - in an entertaining if conventional way - of famed fifties blues label Chess Records, its white founder Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) and its black stars Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), amongst others.
While those musical names won’t count for as much at the box office as Ray Charles and Johnny Cash did for recent biopics Ray and Walk The Line, pop diva Beyonce Knowles’ appearance in a key role could at least help thisSony Music Film production perform well enough theatrically to set up a good ancillary run.
Beating the independently-produced Leonard Chess story Who Do You Love to the marketplace, Sony’s TriStar Pictures opens the R-rated drama next week (December 5) in North America and will be hoping to attract enough older music fans and African-American moviegoers to make a mark on a relatively quiet weekend in the busy holiday/awards season calendar.
Sony Pictures Releasing International may struggle to make a mark outside the US, however. Though blues artists have sometimes (as the film briefly shows) been more lauded in Europe than at home, biopics about modern American musical figures often perform less well when they go on tour internationally.
Written and directed by Darnell Martin (I Like It Like That and HBO’s Their Eyes Were Watching God), the film introduces Leonard Chess as an ambitious Polish emigre bar owner who shuns the racist attitudes that are prevalent in his Chicago home but sees black music mainly as a financial opportunity. Muddy Waters enters the picture as a former Mississippi sharecropper whose powerful electric blues numbers give Chess Records its first hits.
Chess and Waters are the story’s abiding characters, but as the record company grows, the film delivers briefer portraits of Waters’ troubled musical sidekick and surrogate son Little Walter (Columbus Short), commanding blues shouter Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), early rock’n’roller Chuck Berry and emotionally scarred crossover chanteuse Etta James.
The abundance of players means that the film never gets very far under the skin of any one character. While it touches on some of Waters’ weaknesses and James’ drug and alcohol problems, it mostly recounts the key facts and moments of each musical life in a slightly prosaic, dramatised-documentary style.
Darnell doesn’t shy away from the story’s edgier aspects: the rough manners and bad habits of the musicians, the racially segregated world in which they worked, and the questionable business and personal relations which Leonard Chess often enjoyed with his acts. But with its flat, brightly-lit look, the film still feels short on texture and atmosphere.
The music, produced by rock world veteran Steve Jordan, sounds fairly authentic but inevitably lacks the rawness and grit of the original tracks - including I’m A Man, Nadine and At Last - replicated as part of the story.
The standout acting performance comes from Wright, who, though he doesn’t look particularly like Waters, captures some of the singer’s physicality and delivers some poignant moments as the great bluesman begins to lose his commercial mojo.
Knowles (last seen on the big screen in Dreamgirls) only appears in the film’s final third, and while her acting is passable, her musical performance is, not surprisingly, the most credible in the film (in which most of the actors sang themselves). The release of the singer’s new (though unrelated) Sony CD should help Sony market Cadillac Records to a younger demographic than might otherwise have been interested in a blues-era movie.
Sony Music Film
Peter C Frank
Cedric the Entertainer