It’s Obama time and black artists still suffer segregation. How else to explain the Gotham Independent Film Awards ignoring Cadillac Records, the most excitingly performed American movie this year? Cadillac Records tells a story of black popular music—its rapidly changing phases during the 1950s from the blues to race records, from rock ’n’ roll to R&B—with richly exciting characters but not one hint of exoticism.
Decades after published black music histories by Peter Guralnick, Charles Shaar Murray, Robert Palmer, Ted Gioia, Gerri Hirshey, Albert Murray and others, an informed vision finally makes it on screen. Credit writer-director Darnell Martin’s intelligence. Her love for such legendary performers as Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf and Etta James isn’t clouded by fan worship. She shows them as artists in a commercially controlled system—a shrewd, accurate and personal reading of American cultural history.
Martin knows these gifted Americans had the ability to express their feelings and talent but, by staying connected to the blues, she shows that the apparatus of the music business—like the Southern agrarian and Northern industrial systems they came of out—catered to their vanity while also manipulating them, even tempting their destruction. In Martin’s script, Leonard Chess, a Polish immigrant with thuggish demeanor and down-n-dirty taste, created the Chess Records label to exert entrepreneurial gumption: his own form of artistry.
This period account of tough Negroes and a tough Jew isn’t accusatory. Martin looks straight at their symbiotic problems and achievements. (Martin’s I Like It Like That won the Best First Film Award from the New York Film Critics Circle in 1994; this is her only theatrical release since then—she’s learned something about showbiz apparatus.) Through her multi-hued cast, Martin confides a range of experiences familiar to American caste living—the available, mutable identities plus the indignities of limited opportunity and constant risks of denigration.
Note Martin’s inspired title: Cadillac Records encapsulates the political economy of pop music; combining objects of the performers’ material aspirations and the music-buying public’s mid-century cultural fetish. It’s what Charlie Kaufman pretentiously calls a “synecdoche.” But who wouldn’t rather see the fabulous Jeffrey Wright, Beyoncé Knowles, Columbus Short, Eamonn Walker, Gabrielle Union, Mos Def and Cedric the Entertainer than watch Kaufman’s ponderous Actors’ Studio tryouts? Cadillac Records compresses history into assorted vivid characterizations—a gallery of pop culture myths made flesh.
In Scorsese’s good series of PBS blues films, the most imaginative was Wim Wenders’ Soul of a Man. But Martin also focuses on women—particularly Etta James, played by Beyoncé (who is also this film’s producer). Martin needs development as a visual artist, but she brings a race- and sex-awareness that neither Scorsese, Wenders nor Taylor Hackford in Ray could imagine—although Leon Ichaso did in El Cantante, the one-of-a-kind Nuyorican biopic about Hector Lavoe featuring Jennifer Lopez and Mark Anthony. Like Lopez and Anthony, Beyoncé seizes the chance to get real. Unlike her slanderous faux-Diana Ross role in Dreamgirls, Beyoncé’s Etta James is grounded in life’s mess, not gossip. Beyoncé lets it loose with profanity, but her Etta’s also part “baby girl” (daughter of the white billiard champ Minnesota Fats and a black hooker, she’s an authentic child of American mixing).
This isn’t just a gaudy star turn; coming midway in the story, it’s whiz-kid Beyoncé again startling us with how much she knows about womanliness: the way James forged herself out of resentment and guts, troubled by racism and men’s estimation. Dabbling in prostitution, James finds part of herself via singing (losing the other part via drugs). Beyoncé’s platinum blond bob and strong hips redeem James-the-loser; she stands and belts as a taller, vibrant image of the legendary “Peaches.” Her “I’d Rather Go Blind” isn’t a copy, it’s a damn good tribute.
That’s how all of Cadillac Records works. Not ponderous and pious like Milk, it’s a quick-sketch B-movie biopic that looms large. Its depth comes from the beauty and intensity Martin finds in each tribute. Columbus Short mixes charm and fright as boyish, gold-toothed killer and harpist Little Walter. It’s horrifying to see his smoothness destroyed by a bigoted white cop because Short wears Walters’ vulnerability—his temper and desire—on his face.
Eamonn Walker’s wild-eyed, no-nonsense Howlin’ Wolf appears briefly, yet says everything necessary about the strength of character that goes into blues artistry—a rarely seen example of hardscrabble black integrity. Walker’s so potent he confirms every frightening, glorious likelihood you ever felt while listening to Wolf‘s “Smokestack Lightning.” Mos Def’s ribald, defensive Chuck Berry, Cedric the Entertainer’s sage Willie Dixon and Gabrielle Union as the sweet, faithful Geneva complement the film’s more troubled figures. They counter the media’s usual racist exoticism that dismisses black sorrow as “anger.”
But Martin’s vision isn’t angry—it’s conscientious, what essayist Benj DeMott terms “unillusioned.” Her portrait of Leonard Chess (played by Adrien Brody) is not romanticized. He’s a cutthroat aesthete, taking advantage of America’s cosmopolitan opportunity. Chess was a sharecropper of the arts—throwing Cadillacs at his luxury-starved performers then slowly bleeding them dry for it. Martin’s sad story of R&B extortion is almost matter-of-fact—the nightmare everyone’s heard of but was never clearly dramatized.
Until someone discovers a lost August Wilson play titled Mannish Boy, Cadillac Records will suffice as The Muddy Waters Movie. It centers on the McKinley Morganfield-Muddy Waters story the way Gordon Parks turned Texan Huddie Ledbetter into Leadbelly. And turning the Mississippi ditch-digger into the archetypal blues stud is the always-elegant Jeffrey Wright. Not playing an enigmatic prodigy, he also surpasses a Muddy Waters impersonation. Darkening his skin tone, lowering his usual whisper, Wright’s enriched himself. His slyness has power. This is an original creation, not simply the Muddy myth, but something physically prettier—which is equally mysterious and mythically justified. He wears Muddy’s offstage doo-rag like a crown.
Wright portrays a man of great feeling, and he “keeps growing into that man,” as Willie Dixon says. On hearing his own recorded voice: “I feel like I met myself for the first time.” On meeting Little Walter: “He fit me!” And Wright says that lovingly—as both mack-daddy and family man. He sings sex, but his interactions are compassionate, teaching Little Walter what it means to get up every morning and what to expect. (Martin’s best writing.) Waters succumbs to Chess’ schemes while being hip to them—a truly complex figure. If Wright isn’t nominated best actor, then there is no revolution in Obama-era film culture.
Directed by Darnell Martin, Running Time: 109 min.
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