If the Oscar qualification read “Best Performed Classic Song” rather than “Best Original Song,” then Beyonce Knowles would be in line for an Academy Award. Playing Blues/Rock firebrand Etta James in Darnell Martin’s “Cadillac Records,” her belting out of “At Last” is a showstopper of the defining moment variety. We emit a big “whew!”
As entertaining as it is informative, the history lesson focusing on the musical comings and goings at Chess Records from the late 1940s through the mid ‘60s often elicits such emotional response. Powerfully interpreted as a crucible within the greater class/racial struggle, the importance of the saga allows us to forgive its frequently ragged edges.
Told in the traditional style and structure of the genre, it is not without cliché. But don’t worry. No composer, whilst taking a carriage ride in the Bavarian woods, is able to at long last plug–in that missing note in his symphony courtesy of a helpful songbird. This is Chicago and the experience-wrung inspiration most often comes hard and painful.
Igniting one of the post WWII fires of revolution, musical and otherwise, is Leonard Chess, born Lejzor Czyz in Motal, Poland. By now fully hip to the jive and doubtless a visionary, he chucks his junkyard business for a nightclub where he will feature the emerging sound, most of it emanating from African Americans. Controversy swirls.
But the time cannot be denied. And when Chess, played with good instinct by Adrien Brody, meets Jeffrey Wright’s Muddy Waters, a plantation worker escaped to the Windy City in search of his destiny, the synergy arguably gives birth to rhythm and blues. Oddly, the nightclub burns down. Leonard starts Chess Records without skipping a beat.
Mind you, not all the history is intact. Artistic license figures there’s no room for Leonard’s brother and partner, Phil. There is also no mention of the Chess-preceding Aristocrat Records. The filmmaker instead prefers a poetic, stylistic form to note the chronology. The shape of the current Cadillac defines the temper and the time.
Whether it’s a coupe, convertible or Sedan de Ville, neither Leonard nor his stable of stars is long without one. The flaunting fins measure the horizon, beautifully, audaciously declaring success in America. Gifts, they glimpse Leonard’s curious payroll accounting. And, unable to ignore the timely irony, we wonder where might goest this cultural icon.
That sigh noted, the one area where “Cadillac Records” swerves wide from the music-film template is the violence. Personified by Little Walter, a loose cannon played by Columbus Short, the sociology brought to fore often puts us nervous. One scene in the countryside when Walter happens upon an impersonator is certain to blow you away.
The anger isn’t limited to external forces. To Mr. Chess’s consternation, the survival instinct is almost always on high alert, often causing an enmity among his growing list of celebrities. I.e.- Muddy Waters feels threatened by Howling Wolf (Eamonn Walker), the latter hinting he’s an Uncle Tom, etc. But the real cause of frustration is more complex.
The recording industry microcosm etched here makes no bones about it. It’s essentially the history of commerce in America…in the Western World for that matter, prior to the rise of labor unions. Welching on royalties was common practice. Entrepreneur Chess, while a groundbreaker in so many other areas, shared in the big rationalization.
It was tacitly accepted that, since he was taking all the risk, he could make the rules. But in practice it is the capitalist unable or unwilling to make a full leap from a feudalistic mindset. Add the racial overtones and, despite some of the great camaraderie that forms, there’s no getting away from the thought that Leonard is merely replacing Ole Massa.
Adding complication to the mix is the romantic fallout from Chess’s discovery of Etta James. The emerging record mogul (happily married, as he is always so quick to note) sought a female voice to balance his male music idols. Schmaltzy or not, we willingly buy into the forbidden fruit angle movingly realized by Miss Knowles and Mr. Brody.
Putting it all into historical perspective while concurrently lending snippets of comedy and compassion, Cedric the Entertainer as composer/musician Willie Dixon does a swell job of narrating. His tongue-in-cheek, philosophical voiceovers espouse temperance, forgiveness and a humorous confidence. He reminds it’s but one step in a long journey.
Then of course there’s the music, deftly supplying a stirring, realistic exclamation to the watershed years in question. Though guilty of an occasional, factual misfire, “Cadillac Records” lays down some cool tracks while taking the ride from R & B through Rock ‘N’ Roll, managing along the way to impart its own brand of fin-de-siecle momentousness.
“Cadillac Records,” rated R, is a TriStar Pictures release directed by Darnell Martin and stars Adrien Brody, Beyonce Knowles and Jeffrey Wright. Running time: 109 minutes
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