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Music Movie Mondays: Cadillac Records

September 13, 2010

Today’s entry was supposed to be my last offering for the Music Movie Monday series. Unfortunately, I mixed up my Netflix queue and I received Darnell Martin’s Cadillac Records. I intended to go out on Susan Seidelman’s 1985 classic Desperately Seeking Susan, a movie I love that I hoped to book-end with my first entry on 24-Hour Party People. However, it came in the mail over the weekend while I was out of town. So I watched the period film about Chess Records, a Chicago-based independent label founded in 1950 that became home to pioneers like Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, Etta James, Little Walter, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. Hopefully, the staff will oblige me and I can conclude the series as intended next week.

Though it looked like a conventional biopic, I was intrigued that David Edelstein thought so highly of it as to rank it fourth in New York Magazine‘s list of 2008’s best movies. I also appreciated Lamonia Brown’s inclusion of Martin’s work in her piece for The Grio on the marginalization of black female directors in Hollywood. Having also read Jaap Kooijman’s provocative piece on the star presence of black female pop stars in biopics about their forebears, I was of course interested in Beyoncé approaching the role of Etta James, attempting to position a symbiosis to which the singular Ms. James herself took issue. Finally, I’m always willing to see a movie with either Mos Def or Jeffrey Wright, who I think are reliably magnetic as Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. Wright in particular is one of the most talented and surprising actors of his generation, and someone I’d nominate for I Fry’s “Who Is That Actor?” series.

In essence, Cadillac Records remains a conventional biopic in ways analogous to the well-worn tropes Marisa Meltzer pointed out in her review of The Runaways. I’m unclear as to why Edelstein bestowed such plaudits upon it. The points raised about the difficulties of starting a record label, the treacherous nature of pre-Civil Rights Act race relations, and the corrupt practices of racial segregation and publishing practices through generic conventions and reception are important to remember but get no insight in Martin’s script. Martin is an assured director, but there’s nothing especially remarkable about the proceedings here. Wright and Def are great as Waters and Berry, musical visionaries who don’t get the credit they deserve in their time and, like many musicians before and after, succumb to a myriad of vices. Cedric the Entertainer, Columbus Keith Short, Jr., and Eamonn Walker are competent as Dixon, Walter, and Wolf. Adrian Brody is a non-entity as co-founder Leonard Chess, who mortgages his young family’s future and wearily forks over money for a fledgling business and select members of its talented but emotionally unstable roster.

As a fan, I was surprised by how distracting I found Beyoncé’s performance. It felt far removed from her subject and ultimately abided by with Kooijman’s argument about the ways in which pop biopics actually serve as a way to reposition the star in continuum with the subject’s legacy. At no point did I forget that I was watching Beyoncé. You can place a platinum blonde wig on her head, give her salty language to recite, and have her play a scene where she’s supposed to be strung out, but she never successfully transformed. Some of this is to do with her voice, which bears little resemblance to James’s alto. In particular, Beyoncé possesses a pleading vocal quality, which is in marked contrast to James’s tonal remonstration toward begging. This is made plain in James’ studio performance of “All I Could Do Was Cry,” which is supposed to serve as James’ star turn. Too bad all I hear is Beyoncé as Beyoncé. Perhaps James objected to being obscured in representations of her work. I hardly blame her.

As I found Beyoncé palatable in Dreamgirls and hope she kicks ass in Obsessed, I’ll place equal responsibility on Martin as writer-director. She seems unable to maximize the pop star’s dramatic potential. This isn’t a problem she has with Mos, who I lose in his performance. In addition, I could do without the brazen attempts to pathologize James as the product of an absent white pool hustler and black prostitute who uses junk to MEDICATE HER PAIN, along with Chess’s ludicrous efforts to SAVE HER FROM HERSELF. Their story culminates in a melodramatic kiss shared between James and Chess that feels cheap and ill-advised well before Waters and his partner (Gabrielle Union) interrupt it.

The movie closes on Little Walter’s unexpected death from a blood clot in 1968, but the retelling of these events and a summation of Chess Records’ cultural legacy plays largely as an afterthought. Much of the movie itself plays out in this fashion, which is an unfortunate example of how many biopics are evaded by opportunities to represent why artists capture our cultural imaginations. Wright comes the closest with his underplayed performance. If only the movie met his aspirations.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2010 4:02 pm

    Darnell Martin is not at her best here. The material doesn’t play to her strengths – intimate moments of humanity, interwoven with non-preachy astute social commentary – and is at odds with the kind of brilliance demonstrated in other projects such as her work on Homicide: Life on the Street. The material is entirely too formulaic for the kind of stories she tells best, and Beyonce, like Diana Ross is a marginal acting talent. I’m being generous though.

    re: Jeffrey Wright. I’m not entirely sold on him, as I find his versatility and film opportunities speaks more to colorism than his innate acting abilities. He’s never dazzled me in anything except Syriana, and that’s only because I didn’t recognize him!

  2. September 13, 2010 8:40 pm

    I was a little softer on Beyonce when I reviewed this in the theater, but for the most part agree with your assessments here. But don’t get excited for Obsessed either, though it’s probably the exact right fit for her skills.

    I can’t wait for the final installment next week with Desperately Seeking Susan!

  3. September 13, 2010 9:19 pm

    I watched this with my niece, who was really excited to watch a movie about the “music of her people”(she’s biracial). I was excited to watch it because, well, I love the Chess artists only slightly less than I love Stax artists.

    I found most of the performances to be..well…meh. My niece had actually not heard any Etta James songs until I played them for her(!), and she was blown away by her vocals and disappointed by Beyonce. We both loved Mos Def (who I will watch in anything) and I enjoyed Eamonn Walker’s Howlin’ Wolf, even though it wasn’t totally right.

    I thought the ending was a bit slapdash as well, and really wished there’d been less of a focus on James (mainly because of how the focus was directed, I think).

    I enjoyed it, possibly enough to watch it again at some point, but I’m not going to go out of my way to do so.

    I’m also looking forward to your final piece next week! Not that it’s final, because that sucks, but I love DSS!

  4. September 13, 2010 9:21 pm

    Most films could benefit from 100% more Mos Def!

  5. September 13, 2010 9:34 pm

    Mos Def’s Ford Prefect was the best part of the HHG2G movie!

  6. September 13, 2010 9:35 pm

    Wait, Mos Def is in that movie? Ok, that might make me watch it.

  7. September 13, 2010 9:44 pm

    It’s meh, but saved by Mos and Bill Nighy (as always).

  8. September 15, 2010 11:09 am

    Mos Def in the Stepin Fetchit story. That’s a movie I’d like to see. But as for this one, I kinda avoided it when it came out, precisely because Beyoncé was playing Etta James and I thought that to be stunt casting in its worst form. She appeared on a couple of tv show testimonials or awards singing “At Last” and that was enough for me to tune right out!


  1. Check out my Music Movie Monday post for I Fry Mine in Butter: Cadillac Records « Feminist Music Geek

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