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Review: (NYT) Cadillac Records: blues movie

Desert Dancer 04 Dec 08 - 11:48 PM
PoppaGator 05 Dec 08 - 04:56 PM
katlaughing 05 Dec 08 - 05:57 PM
Desert Dancer 05 Dec 08 - 09:18 PM
GUEST,astro 09 Dec 08 - 01:23 AM
PoppaGator 09 Dec 08 - 01:04 PM
katlaughing 25 Apr 09 - 11:51 PM
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Subject: Review: (NYT) Cadillac Records: blues movie
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 04 Dec 08 - 11:48 PM

Thought this New York Times review might interest Mudcat blues enthusiasts. Sounds pretty good. (Quoted in full here since access will soon be limited.)

~ Becky in Tucson

Got Their Musical Mojo Working
Published: December 5, 2008

In "Cadillac Records," Darnell Martin's rollicking and insightful celebration of Chicago blues in its hectic golden age, Jeffrey Wright plays the singer and guitarist Muddy Waters. This feat is made even more impressive and interesting when you reflect that in the same movie season Mr. Wright has portrayed another notable real-life African-American, the former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in Oliver Stone's "W." The man is equally credible as a statesman and a bluesman. If that's not range, what is?

Much more than racial typecasting or clever mimicry is at work in these performances. Mr. Wright can hardly be said to bear a strong physical resemblance to Muddy Waters or Mr. Powell – or, for that matter, to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he played in the HBO film "Boycott," or to the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, so brilliantly impersonated in "Basquiat."

Rather, Mr. Wright, as protean and serious an actor as any working in American movies, seems to be writing his own version of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man," the literary scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s collection of essays on various styles of African-American manhood.

In each case, whether playing a former soldier or a tormented artist, Mr. Wright directs our attention away from the familiar, public face of the character in question toward a private zone where ambition struggles with anxiety, and where what seems to be at stake is nothing less than the integrity and viability of the self. And so, in his Muddy Waters, we see pride, ambition and uncertainty cohabiting with musical genius, sexual appetite and stubborn professionalism.

"Cadillac Records" is by no means Mr. Wright's film alone, and his work is enriched by the skill and verve of a prodigious ensemble. The film is not – thank goodness – another dutiful musical biopic, but rather the group portrait of a remarkable, volatile constellation of artists, including Little Walter (Columbus Short), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles), Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker) and Willie Dixon, the bassist and songwriter who narrates in the mellow, countrified voice of Cedric the Entertainer.

These musical innovators are gathered together – promoted, exploited and given shiny new Caddies with heavy strings attached – by Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), a Jewish entrepreneur in postwar Chicago who sees "race music" as a potential gold mine. That it also turns out to be an agent of wholesale cultural transformation – an old song observes that the blues had a baby, and they called it rock 'n' roll – does not faze him in the least.

Few subjects are as encrusted with legend, hyperbole and sheer bunk as the history of American popular music, and there will no doubt be pedants who will object to some of the liberties "Cadillac Records" has taken with the literal truth. At times Leonard Chess seems so stressed out by running the record company bearing his name that you wish he had, say, a brother to share the burden. The real Leonard Chess did, but for now Phil Chess will have to join Nesuhi Ertegun, brother of Ahmet, in the ranks of music industry siblings neglected by Hollywood.

In any case, Ms. Martin, who wrote as well as directed "Cadillac Records," does not need to lean too heavily on the historical record, or on the dreary conventions of pop-culture hagiography, because she has a clear and complicated set of ideas about her characters and a deep appreciation of the music they made. It is, sadly, all too rare for a movie about important musicians to pay intelligent attention to the sounds and idioms that make their lives worth dramatizing in the first place.

But in "Cadillac Records" you hear most of the important advances and developments that defined urban blues in the 1940s and '50s. When Muddy Waters, newly arrived in Chicago from Mississippi, plugs his guitar into an amplifier, a new sonic mutation occurs. Then Chuck Berry comes along, playing in a speedier, country-inflected style that makes him the first major star to cross from the R&B to the pop charts.

"Cadillac Records" would be worth seeing for the music alone. Mr. Wright's renditions of Muddy Waters's signature songs are more than respectable, while Ms. Knowles's interpretations of Ms. James's hits – "At Last" and "I'd Rather Go Blind," in particular – are downright revelatory.

And so, it should be said, is Ms. Knowles's performance. In her previous film roles she has seemed guarded and tentative, as if worried that her charisma would melt from too much emotional heat. Here, playing a needy, angry, ferociously talented and fantastically undisciplined woman, she is as volcanic and voluptuous as an Italian movie star. Or, more to the point, a real soul diva of the old school.

The music is also a window into history, and "Cadillac Records" is an uncommonly astute treatment of race in America at the end of the Jim Crow era. Its dense, anecdotal narrative is built around the sometimes uneasy friendship between Leonard Chess and Muddy Waters, his first big star. Chess is devoted to his artists, but he also profits from their art, and Mr. Brody shows him to be neither a paragon of racial enlightenment nor a predator.

"His job is to make money off you," Howlin' Wolf says to Muddy Waters, who is hurt by what he sees as Chess's double-dealing. "You're from Mississippi. I thought you would have known that."

The rivalry between those two bluesmen is another source of intrigue in "Cadillac Records," which sustains a remarkable number of dramatically important relationships, any one of which could have been a movie in its own right. Muddy Waters is also a mentor to Little Walter – a troubled, reckless, brilliant harmonica player – and a steadfast (if unfaithful) husband to Geneva (Gabrielle Union). Chess, meanwhile, though he is married (his wife, Revetta, is played by Emmanuelle Chriqui) is nearly undone by his passion for Etta James.

So much passion, so much pain, so much tenderness and violence. If you dig up an album from the heyday of Chess Records, you'll find all that and more. And "Cadillac Records" is nearly as good as one of those albums, which is saying a lot. This movie is crowded and sprawling, and if it rambles sometimes, that's just fine. Like those big, boxy Caddies (and like Howlin' Wolf, if he did say so himself), it's built for comfort, not for speed. It hums, it purrs and it roars.

"Cadillac Records" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has smoking, swearing, sex and mayhem in excess, which is just the right amount.


Opens on Friday nationwide.

Written and directed by Darnell Martin; director of photography, Anastas Michos; edited by Peter C. Frank; music by Terence Blanchard; production designer, Linda Burton; produced by Andrew Lack and Sofia Sondervan; released by TriStar Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes.

WITH: Adrien Brody (Leonard Chess), Jeffrey Wright (Muddy Waters), Gabrielle Union (Geneva Wade), Columbus Short (Little Walter), Cedric the Entertainer (Willie Dixon), Emmanuelle Chriqui (Revetta Chess), Eamonn Walker (Howlin' Wolf), Eric Bogosian (Alan Freed), Mos Def (Chuck Berry) and Beyoncé' Knowles (Etta James).

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Subject: RE: Review: (NYT) Cadillac Records: blues movie
From: PoppaGator
Date: 05 Dec 08 - 04:56 PM

There was another thread on this film started just a day or two ago, which included a link to a somewhat more critical Chicago Sun-Times article/review.

Today's New Orleans Times-'Picayune includes a movie review that has good things to say about the music and about Jeffrey Wright's portrayal of Muddy Waters, but which disagrees with the NTY writer quite strongly about Beyonce's effort to portray Etta James.

I haven't seen the film, and I'm finding it quite interesting to compare the various reactions.

Maybe some elf/clone type can combine the threads???

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Subject: RE: Review: (NYT) Cadillac Records: blues movie
From: katlaughing
Date: 05 Dec 08 - 05:57 PM

There's a trailer for it at youtube with Beyonce near the end singing as Etta James. I don't know much about either of them, but it seems to me she can sing.:-)

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Subject: RE: Review: (NYT) Cadillac Records: blues movie
From: Desert Dancer
Date: 05 Dec 08 - 09:18 PM

Shoot, I missed the other thread. Consolidation would be a good idea.

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Subject: RE: Review: (NYT) Cadillac Records: blues movie
From: GUEST,astro
Date: 09 Dec 08 - 01:23 AM

I saw Etta a couple of years ago with Bill Cosby, he was sneaking behind her with her shoes (which she had kicked off to sing), she whips around sees him and chases him off the stage...I would have run too...

astro in LA

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Subject: RE: Review: (NYT) Cadillac Records: blues movie
From: PoppaGator
Date: 09 Dec 08 - 01:04 PM

DD, thanks for the link to that other thread.

Kat, I think that everyone agrees that Beyonce can sing. There seems to be some disagreement about how well she can act, and specifically how well she portrays Etta.

A few parts of Cadillac Records were filmed in and around New Orleans, and Orleanian Terrance Blanchard is credited for the film's musical score. There's another "docudrama" film about Chess Records still in the editing stages witch was filmed entirely in Louisiana. I'm anxious to see how that movie will compare to this one.

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Subject: RE: Review: (NYT) Cadillac Records: blues movie
From: katlaughing
Date: 25 Apr 09 - 11:51 PM

We rented this movie and watched it today. We both enjoyed it very much. Not being very knowledgeable about most of them, during the time period it portrays, I wasn't looking for any mistakes, etc. For that I am glad, after reading some comments in the other thread, esp. Anyway, we both recommend it.

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