Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Sound - and the Cost - of the Blues: Cadillac Records

The predictably rapid advent of Beyonce as a featured actress (following Dreamgirls) and the casting of Adrien Brody (he of the surprise Halle Berry Oscars smooch) and the likes of Cedric the Entertainer and Mos Def led to  a lot of hype around this movie on its release nearly four years ago.

Of course, the hype was not enough and it opened to a middling reception both critically and commercially. But now, with the dust having settled, and with our own ludicrously misnamed "Jamaica Jazz & Blues Festival" again on the horizon, the quasi-documentary feature on the history of the  hugely influential Chess Records label is worth a look, or a second look, as the case may be.

Polish immigrant Leonard Chess parlayed his ear for talent, freewheeling nature and general disregard for convention into the powerhouse of blues, rock n' roll, jazz and even gospel, and the home (commercially and otherwise), of such legends as Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Etta James and even Chuck Berry, the latter still duck-walking his way across the stages of the world today some 60 years later.

There are a lot of the expected elements: every third word or so, especially from the men, is "muthaf---"; theres' open and subtle race discrimination and a lot of sex, inter-racial and otherwise. But director and writer  Darnell Martin ( a woman, despite the masculine-sounding first name) knows how to mix it together and move it along. And of course, there is the music which, whether simulated or actually played, is a near irresistible force; it just gets into you. One scene, where harmonica genius Little Walter takes vocal duties, on the chart-topper "My Babe" is a sequence of such sheer sonic and visual magic that it hardly needs the cliched inter-cutting showing the record rising up the charts. Similarly, when Berry singlehandedly "integrates" screaming black and whites fans at a concert, the visual narrative really soars.

But while such flights are few and far between, the rest of it is just good enough to earn our sustained attention, and the cast (especially Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, Columbus Short as Walter and Mos Def as Berry) mostly turn in professional-grade performances. Here, we return to Beyonce who, in the role of earthy blues chanteuse Etta James, is really a non-starter. Sure, her musical numbers show an admirable level of restraint, but in her speaking parts and interactions, she comes across as hollow and devoid of genuine feeling.

But despite this, Cadillac Records (the switch may have something to do with the fact that the Chess Records catalog is owned by Universal, while the film was released by Sony Pictures), is primarily the story of how Black music became the pop music of America and the world, and in this respect, its worth taking in, even if  you don't know the difference between "Hoochie Coochie Man" and "Smokestack Lighnin'"

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