EVERYBODY WANTS to sing the blues, but the life of the blues is a narrow path that few find. The names Muddy Waters, Etta James and Howling Wolf may linger as the mystical first parents of this musical family tree, but for most Americans, there is vague black hole where their histories and back catalogues should be. One film can’t change that ignorance and, though the star-studded musical biopic Cadillac Records tries to tell the story of the artists and faces behind Chicago’s seminal Chess Records, it leaves out and rewrites too much of that history to actually serve as a primary source.
But Cadillac Records’ historical shortcomings hardly serve as a ending point; the movie’s story is still a rich, compelling portrait of these artists and their music. Numerous critics savage the film for its rewriting of history—including the removal of Chess Records co-founder Phil Chess from the story entirely. But the film works best if it’s taken for exactly what it is: a tribute to the ideal and form of blues, rather than a scrupulous account of particular events.
The screenplay traces that ideal through the journey of Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) from a Mississippi sharecropper to the world’s premiere blues musician through his relationship with a struggling Polish immigrant named Leonard Chess (Adrian Brody). It’s framed by a rather predictable linear retelling of Chess Records history by legendary songwriter Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer). But what the story lacks in narrative imagination, it makes up for in rich, extended musical performances. Opening with Waters’s first quavering notes on the streets of Chicago and continuing with the biting harmonica of Little Walter, the restrained ferocity of Howlin’ Wolf, or the impish verses of Chuck Berry—a profoundly relevant and powerful world of music opens for the illiterate viewer, climaxing in Etta James’ (Beyonce Knowles) bittersweet agony.
Beyonce’s captivating performance highlights her distinctly traditional talent and an artistic passion that seems far more suited to James’ soaring notes than the choppy gyrations of Sasha Fierce. Something special happens when she slips on that blonde wig and channels James’ heartbreaking soul in “I’d Rather Go Blind.” It’s those performances that give Cadillac Records its vibrance, and, whether Muddy’s boozing up a small Chicago club or Chuck Berry’s seducing every skirt with his duckwalking ways, the scene is painted without tarnishing the pure soul of the music.
Cadillac Records is painted in sweeping strokes that may leave music buffs cringing, but it provides more than just a mid-American SparkNotes guide for the uninformed. The film is a powerful example of exactly what the blues are: “You can sing the blues without having to live them,” Chess counsels James mid-way through the film, but it becomes clear that such agonizing and painful music cannot come from an emotionally stable existence. Every character, with the possible exception of Howlin’ Wolf, is stricken with a profound inability to live a peaceful life.
It earns its R rating, but manages to navigate the dark and complex issues surrounding the formation of this music with a degree of moral clarity that is neither heavy-handed nor ambiguous. “The blues are about f—ing,” Water says, explaining an essential connection at which the film takes an unblinking examination.
Blues have always been such a powerful art form because of their function as more than a mere tribute to free-rolling hedonism; they’re also an honest examination of the tolls the music/sex life demands of the individual. Waters seduces women after woman, while his wife tearfully serves at home. Berry’s gleeful ménage à trios is interrupted by the sweet sounds of the Beach Boy’s plagiarism, and even Chess’s stolen moment with James is marred by a blatantly visible wedding ring. Blues may be about sex, but in the off-stage world of Chess Records, sex was hardly the free-wheeling love that emerged in the lyrical and stylistic progeny that followed.
Cadillac Records is hemmed on all sides by the limitations of the unapologetic biopic, but it is more accurately understood as a love song to the genre for the masses. It will join Almost Famous, Walk the Line and Once as a film that captures a new musical generation’s fascination with the legends that inspired the current scenes. Though the historical condensing hampers it from being a truly epic musical biopic, its sweeping and vibrant examination allow it to transcend its factual flaws and provide an enchanting, moving cinematic experience that will leave the vast swath of American film-goers digging through old YouTube videos of Etta and Muddy, searching for that spine-tingling sensation brought by art that truly understands the pain and joy of human existence.
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