The rise and fall of the rise and fall of Cadillac Records

cadillac records

When watching our Netflix copy of 2008’s Cadillac Records, we get through the opening credits before my cell phone rings, and I have to pause the film.  I wanted to get off the phone as soon as possible, because I was so pumped up by the first five minutes of the film, and was looking forward to being transported to the universe that the film was setting up.  The opening credits sequence is as bright as the glare coming off of a freshly polished Cadillac Sedan De Ville.  This may be due partly to the fact that there are many, many Cadillacs that grace the screen in just a few minutes.  As the classic cars flash across the screen, classic blues riffs set the mood, the Chess records logo spinning in the background, and then Cedric The Entertainer comes out…what?  Cedric The Entertainer?  That Cedric The Entertainer?  Yes, that one, and it turns out that he is going to be the narrator in this little odyssey, and I wasn’t sure if I was on board.  But Cedric was basically playing himself, just without his trademark glasses  and stylish hats, so I was still on board with the film…oh, and then the cell phone rings…

…so I take care of that, and then we can finally get into the film.  The first real scene in the film introduces the audience to the closest thing that this film has to a main character: sharecropper and future blues superlegend Muddy Waters.  Played by heavily underrated actor Jeffrey Wright (Basquiat, Casino Royale), Muddy is a complicated, seductive individual who rides up north to try and make a name for himself in the music business.  At this point, I am on board with the film.  As Muddy meets the musicians who would make up his band, we are then introduced to the second closest thing this film has to a main character: Leonard Chess, played by Oscar winner Adrien Brody, is a former bar owner turned record mogul in the form of his own company titled simply Chess Records.  What follows is a string of events that chronicle the rise and fall of one of the first and brightest blues record labels to ever cross over into the mainstream.  The film has drawn comparisons to 2004’s Ray, and it takes a page out of their book in the visual department.  From the muted pastel colors to the  cars to the costumes to the copper glow that gives the film its bittersweet nostalgia, Cadillac Records certainly looks like a worthy successor to Ray.

Then the film starts to slowly roll downhill from there.  The acting was all over the place on all fronts.  Adrien Brody seemed to have his acting permanently set on “Cool 50’s Rebel” throughout the film, which may resemble a compelling performance, but never actually connect with him.  Jeffrey Wright has the easiest time with the film, wearing a perfectly sculpted 50’s pompadour and perfectly sculpted suits to match.  His character is the only one in the film that is allowed to change at all.  I would say that Wright’s performance nearly saves the film, but we could not understand half of what he was saying in the quieter moments, because Wright gives his Muddy Waters such a drawl that it crossed over into unintelligible.  He could have been trying to growl Chinese backwards, because I would have never know the difference.  Halfway through the film, Beyonce Knowles and Mos Def enter the film as legends Etta James and Chuck Berry, respectively.  These people all deserved their own film, but instead they all get jammed up together in the same redundant narrative that keeps these characters (and these actors) in the same emotional places.  Etta gets reduced to an angry junkie, Chuck Berry becomes a black Jerry Lee Lewis (although that’s not too far off, in my opinion), and Muddy Waters is nothing more than an exceptional blues man who cheats on his wife and has kids out of wedlock.  These details of their real lives that become dramatized on screen are supposed to provide insight, but they fall flat because the film itself does not know which character to develop, so they all just come off as third rate impersonations. Honorable mention does go to Mos Def for giving the film a semblance of the fun that came from early rock and roll, because it certainly broke the monotony.

The Beach Boys stole his riffs, but he got even...

The Beach Boys stole his riffs, but he got even...

The film insists on simply retelling of true events strung together by scenes of drama and stock footage, but it never comes together into a film and we don’t really care about any of the characters (except Muddy Waters).  It felt like the HBO Films version of Ray, so I would say skip this one on video, and just wait for HBO.


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