Saturday, January 3, 2009

"Cadillac Records" is not a hoopty

I caught "Cadillac Records" tonight, which curiously is only showing at a couple of suburban MD theaters, one of which was the Magic Johnson theater (which I avoid like the plague because people still don't know how to turn off their cell phones there. Plus they've managed to turn the place from a jewel into a dump in record time, but that's another blog post).

Anyway, I caught the movie at Muvico Arundel Mills, on a Saturday evening and the place was packed. I LOVED this movie, flawed though it was.

They keep trying to push "Cadillac Records" as a starring vehicle for Beyoncé Knowles who plays Etta James. Truth is, Etta doesn't show up till one hour into the film. Beyonce acquits herself well enough, particularly with her acting. As the great blues singer though she manages merely to suggest Etta James' singing more than embody it. James' trademark growl is reduced to more of a purr, too polished and refined to 'feel' the pain in James' vocals. Or put another way, Etta James sings like a beat-up '54 Ford rusting in the yard and Beyonce Knowles sounds about as rough as a new Lexus in need of a tune-up. This not a knock on Beyonce, who has worked her entire career to sound as smooth and polished as she could. She certainly doesn't embarrass herself in this role (for embarrassingly bad think Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in "Lady Sings the Blues").

I spend entirely too much time defending Beyonce to my co-workers (the DC Curmudgeon and the Jamaican Curmudgeon) who insist that she is just a talentless beauty with a body. I don't get the hate and the resentment. Anyone who has heard Beyonce's duets with Luther Vandross (try "The Closer I Get To You") can tell she can sing, and most of her songs are not badly sung, merely mindless pap, today's version of bubble gum music. Like the old commercial used to say "don't hate her because she's beautiful." She's also been blessed with talent and good fortune, none of which should take away from her trying to stretch and embody women who weren't.

The revelation in "Cadillac Records" is DC's own Jeffrey Wright (who's been great in all his roles, but most notably in "Basquiat," John Singleton's "Shaft," "Angels in America," and "Syriana") as Muddy Waters. His is a portrayal worthy of strong consideration come acting award season. And not far behind is Columbus Short as harmonica player Little Walter. This brother seems to have come out of nowhere to almost steal the movie. Close behind (but not by much) are Mos Def ("Something the Lord Made") as Chuck Berry and British actor Eamonn Walker ("Oz") who is downright scary as Howlin' Wolf.

Adrien Brody ("The Pianist ," "The Darjeeling Limited ," "Summer of Sam") was reliably good as Chess records owner Leonard Chess (although I overheard a White lady grousing as she exited that they should have chosen someone not so pretty to play Chess).

The film's African American director is Darnell Martin, a woman whose only other movie was 1994's "I Like It Like That ", a Hispanic love story set in NYC, and a very good movie in its own right. I like the way Martin embodied the time periods in "Cadillac Records" both in cotton-picking Mississippi and Northern migration Chicago, much more believable an evocation of the time period than one normally sees in most biopics, including "Ray." As with all biopics the film is necessarily episodic. Still I'm glad she included such seminal figures as Alan Lomax who travelled the deep south in the 30s and 40s recording blues singers and other rural folk artists for the Library of Congress.

"Cadillac Records" is a wonderful addition to the pantheon of historical cinema and an invaluable history lesson to those to whom this period and the blues are foreign.

1 comment:

jelani c. said...

Dr F: My name is William Jelani Cobb; I'm a fellow Howard University alum, a history professor and an organizer of the 1989 student protest. As we prepare for the 20th anniversary of that protest I'm pulling together a historical overview of student protest/activism at HU. I'd love to talk to you and other participants in the '68 protest. Please reply to: