It is difficult enough to script a biopic of one famous person because it
requires shoehorning a lifetime of notable achievements into two hours. If
that were not enough, it also must make that lifetime somehow cinematic, and
not just something left over from The History Channel. If one life represents
a writing challenge, imagine how difficult it must be to do a half dozen. Now
imagine how difficult it would be if those six were musicians, and one's film
also had to present a representative sampling of their music, thus eating up
half the running time.
So much to do, so little time.
There's not much time left for character development, but despite the inherent limitations defined by the scope of its ambitions,
Cadillac Records does a pretty damned good job a looking at each of these
musical giants in turn: Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, Etta James,
Little Walter, and Leonard Chess. Huh? Who's that last dude? He's the white
man who built the tiny recording studio which would eventually make the others
Big story. In many ways the obscure Leonard Chess (and his brother Phil,
who is still alive, and whose existence was purged from the record for this
film) invented Rock 'n Roll. Oh, it would have happened someday anyway, but
Leonard is the guy whose machinations got the great black musicians on the air
and even got their songs played on white stations. Those songs in turn got
covered and stolen by lots of white boys, and those covers were great hits for
Elvis, the Rolling Stones, and even The Beach Boys, whose Surfin' USA was an
unlicensed note-for-note lift of a Chuck Berry song. OK, maybe Len didn't pay
everyone the royalties they had coming, but he made them all famous, and
together, to paraphrase Rimbaud, they invented the future.
Given only time for short impersonations and/or characterizations, the main
actors all do an excellent job of evoking the singers they play. Every last
one of the actors is excellent, and every one of the legends comes to life:
the proud and intimidating Howlin' Wolf, the calm Muddy Waters, the effusive
Little Walter, the fun-loving Chuck Berry, and the angry Etta James.
Considering that those actors had to be good enough singers to impersonate
musical legends convincingly, it is downright impressive that they are all
such good actors! Of course, we all know that Beyonce can sing, but the one
who surprised me the most was Columbus Short as Little Walter. I had never
heard of the guy before, but he not only does a great job acting the film's
most complex role, but that mofo can flat-out sing, as he proves in a silky
smooth rendition of My Babe. I don't suppose that could actually be him
playing the harmonica, but he sure as hell faked it convincingly.
Anyway, the reason to see the film is really the music. There are snippets
from several songs, and some numbers are even sung from start to finish. (Producer Beyonce made sure that actress Beyonce had plenty of time on screen to do what
she does best.) Is that so much music that it gets in the way of the
excessively ambitious story? Yes, there is some merit to that argument, but
the screenwriter had to ask "What's important here, the depth of
characterization or the music that changed the world?" She chose to hit
highlights of the story and to flesh the film out with the music instead of with the
drama of their lives. It's an entertainment picture, with just a tiny hint of
education hidden inside of it.
Only one regret. Aretha Franklin also recorded with Chess Records, but for
some reason the film consigned her to the wrong side of the ropes. Sorry,
Aretha, you're not on the list. No respect.
Although the film is rated R, the only nudity is
this brief and dark look
at a jumbo-breasted white groupie engaged in some hanky-panky with Chuck Berry
(Mos Def) and some other white girls.
Emmanuelle Chriqui did a sex scene with Adrian Brody, but absolutely
nothing is visible.
Beyonce may have shown a hint of a wisp of a suggestion of a hint of some
areolae. Or not. But here's the scene if you want to see it yourself.