Cadillac Records

A bad movie trailer can do one of two things: 1) deter you from the film b/c it doesn’t look good; or 2) intrigue you enough to plunk down $10 bucks to check it out. Fortunately for me, the trailer and subsequent commercials for Cadillac Records did the latter. Contrary to popular belief, this is not a movie starring Beyonce. She wonderfully captures Etta James, one of several iconic recording artists signed to Chess (Cadillac) Records, but she doesn’t even make her appearance until at least an hour into the movie.

Instead, the movie chronicles the rise and fall of the second most legendary, prolific record label of the 50s and 60s. I assume that Motown deserves the top spot. Nevertheless, Chess Records featured the likes of Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, and was at the foreground of rock n roll. Founded by Polish immigrant Leonard Chess, the record label’s first prominently successful recording artist was Muddy Waters, masterfully portrayed in the film by Jeffrey Wright (most recently of Quantum of Solace). Len (Adrien Brody, Hollywoodland) and Muddy meet in Chicago, after Muddy migrates up from the sharecropping fields of Mississippi. Soon after arriving in the big city he encounters his future wife Geneva (Gabrielle Union), after setting up shop playing the guitar on a street corner beneath her small apartment. Geneva, like most women – is instantly enamored with Muddy’s soulful voice and guitar. Shortly thereafter he meets a young man named Walter, a skillful harmonica player who provides the perfect accompaniment to Muddy’s electric guitar. Muddy, Geneva, and “Little” Walter become a surrogate family, with Len serving as a benevolent godfather of sorts. He provides the backing and obtains radio airplay, while Muddy and Walter keep churning out the hits and sold-out performances. Eventually Len expands the Chess roster to include Howlin’ Wolf, Etta, and the legendary Chuck Berry.

Chess records was informally known as Cadillac Records because Len purchased all of his artists Cadillacs as reward for their chart-topping songs. He is portrayed as genuine and caring, but one wonders if there wasn’t a hint of exploitation as well. He didn’t let his artists see the books when they inquired about their royalties, even Chuck Berry. Regardless, there seemed to be a real friendship and partnership between he and Muddy, and he certainly tried to keep his artists on the straight and narrow, though a few of them fell on hard times. Little Walter in particular, had a problem with authority and had frequent brushes with the law and local Chicago hoodlums. His life tragically ended at the age of 37, and actor Columbus Short (This Christmas) did an excellent job of capturing his reckless talent. He was brash and cocky, and eventually the mouth that so skillfully played the harmonica also contributed to his demise, along with alcohol and heroin. Muddy’s biggest vice was a penchant for women NOT named Geneva, but he managed to avoid substance abuse, at least according to the movie. This leads me to the most troubled, layered role in the movie – Etta James. I’m beginning to think Beyonce might actually have some acting chops after all.

Unlike Deena in Dreamgirls, Etta James is not a pretty character. She is rough, salty, and coarse. Plagued by deeply-rooted feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy, Etta seems to be surrounded by an impenetrable wall that belies her vulnerability until she opens her mouth and releases that soulful, beautiful voice. When Beyonce performs Etta’s songs “All I Could Do Was Cry” and “I’d Rather Go Blind,” she is in rare form. It is truly something to behold. These moments when music and drama merge are the reasons why art is such a beautiful and powerful medium, the reason why it can take you to another place. She was Etta, stripped bare. Another moving scene featured Etta’s failed reunion with famed pool player Minnesota Fats, her alleged father. She explains to Len that her “mother was a whore,” and she has just been rejected by her father. She feels worthless, and it’s no wonder that she later turns to heroin to numb her pain.

I can’t say enough about this movie, which seems to have fared poorly at the box office on its opening weekend. That’s unfortunate, because it was a movie filled with flawless performances, from top to bottom. I don’t know if it’s poor marketing on behalf of the studio or what – but people are missing out. Don’t be one of them.

This article first appeared at Poptimal and can be found at http://poptimal.com/2008/12/cadillac-records/. It was reprinted with permission.

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