Monday, December 22, 2008

Got My Mojo (Mostly) Workin'

If you've had the opportunity to join Dave and myself on Pop Culture America over at on any of the many occasions when we've discussed some of our favorite films, you know that I am a sucker for movies about bands. Today's review subject isn't a band movie, but it is about the acts that came together in the 1950s and 1960s in Chicago on the legendary Chess Records label. Close enough.

Cadillac Records (d. Darnell Martin)

It all starts when two men come together with a shared vision of delivering what was then called "race music" to a broader audience. One is Lejzor Czyz, white, a Polish immigrant and nightclub owner. The other is McKinley Morganfield, black, a Mississippi sharecropper who travels north to Chicago to escape the cotton fields.

They both take on new identities: Czyz becomes Leonard Chess and names his new record label after himself, while Morganfield transforms into the one and only Muddy Waters. Their goal is simply to sell some records, make some cash, and maybe even get to buy themselves a Cadillac or two. Remember, this story takes place during a long-ago time when American cars were desirable.

Neither man set out to start a revolution in music. But that's just what they did.

Darnell Martin's new film, Cadillac Records, chronicles the rise and fall of Chess and its astounding roster of talent. Besides Waters, the label would swiftly boast the services of Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry and Etta James, Rock and Roll Hall of Famers all. And that parade of musical royalty is unquestionably compelling, the most compelling aspect of the film.

As the Mannish Boy, Muddy Waters himself, Jeffrey Wright overcomes the fact that he bears about as much resemblance to the great bluesman as I do. Or as Joaquin Phoenix bore to Johnny Cash. He gets at the conflict of a man who wants all the trappings of success, yet feels as if he's surrendering his integrity by succeeding. Does anyone lose sleep over that anymore?

Adrien Brody brings his long, sallow face to bear on the role of Chess and he discovers a man who loves a world he'll never be able to truly enter. The primary object of his affection, the formidably damaged Etta James (a very effective Beyonce Knowles), embodies all the maddening challenges and roadblocks that stand in the way of his devotion.

And the rest of the performances are equally solid, with Mos Def as a laconic Chuck Berry, a man who takes racism and industry slights with seething resignation; Eamonn Walker as an uncompromising (and appropriately intimidating) Howlin' Wolf; and Columbus Walker as Little Walter, one of the first casualties of the high-octane life that success brings.

The acting is first rate but sadly is trapped in the service of a cliched script that veers dangerously close to musical biopic self-parody. One almost expects to see Dewey Cox and company walking hard through the Chess studio door with a new number to record.

The big triumphs which lead inexorably to the big tragedies start to pile up a bit too high. Martin is unable to find a fresh way to present familiar moments like The First Big Hit, The Descent Into Drugs/Booze, and -- my favorite -- The No No Honey This Clinch With the Sexy New Singer Is NOT What You Think.

But maybe this story -- of all music stories -- deserves a pass for those transgressions. The acts at Chess records invented a sound that would be aped and swiped and ripped off for decades. Perhaps they invented these biographical cliches as well.

3 stars.

Postscript: The music in Cadillac Records is -- as one would expect -- truly first rate. Enjoy Beyonce's lovely take on Etta James "At Last" from the Fashion Rocks special.

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