December 5, 2008

Cadillac Records takes a greatest-hits approach

There are certain films - let's call them Road Map Movies - that drive you directly from point A to point B to point C, with barely a stop for gas. "Cadillac Records" is such a film: You see all the major landmarks, but how enlightening can a road trip be if you never even get off the highway?

Writer-director Darnell Martin clearly respects the fact that the history of Chess Records is a worthy subject. But therein lies a problem: Overwhelmed by the enormity of the task before her, she's forced to rush from scene to scene, taking a snapshot of each and then hurriedly moving on.

Coming off best is Jeffrey Wright's Muddy Waters, who serves as the movie's troubled conscience. In the late 1940s, he's discovered by Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), who's hoping to start a record label built on the blues. By 1960, Chess has gathered a head-spinning array of talent: Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Little Walter (Columbus Short), Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles). Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer) is here, too, narrating the story in flashback.

Both the script and soundtrack touch on the basics, which are undeniably vital. But surely Martin could have given us more than a Best Of tour: Alan Lomax finds Waters at a Mississippi shack. James records "At Last." Berry gets ripped off by the Beach Boys. And ironically, the director is so determined to pack in as much as possible, she ends up playing fast and loose with facts while speeding by complex issues of identity and exploitation.

She is blessed, however, with a talented cast that shares her belief in the importance of the project. Wright and Mos Def give their best performances in recent memory, Beyoncé finds just the right note of bruised vulnerability, and the intensely charismatic Walker does tremendous work with an underwritten role.

But ultimately, these aren't people we're learning about, they're burnished icons. Given the way these towering artists were overlooked for so long, maybe that's some kind of progress. Even better, however, would be to give them the truly soulful movie they deserve.

Source: NY Daily News

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