DVD Review: Cadillac Records (2008)

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Although pop culture would tell you otherwise, rock 'n roll did not begin with Elvis Presley at Memphis, Tennessee’s Sun Records. Instead, rock had its origins in the blues and later rhythm and blues. And while arguably the first bona fide rock 'n roll star was none other than Chuck Berry—Berry’s story along with the other pioneers of rhythm and blues that led to rock 'n roll as we now know it today has basically been left in the dust.

While interviews with artists like Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and other musicians along with musical scholars will cite there early blues influences and a few years ago an entire PBS documentary was dedicated to the subject-- writer-director Darnell Martin said to change all that in a minor way with her stunning, underrated ensemble piece Cadillac Records.

Although admittedly, some of the facts have been blended together and some of the personalities have been left by the wayside to squeeze in what Martin explains was “the absolute truth” of the stories she wanted to tell “about how the blues became popular music, how it affected civil rights,” by whittling down her 150 page first draft to a feature-length movie running just 109 minutes, she achieves a wonderful success that works on two levels.

Firstly, she's made it one hell of a great film about the blues (which in reality is surely about the history of the American people) by calling attention to artists that have been long forgotten and secondly, like a cool walking musical encyclopedia, Martin earns in n honorary title as professor in making us want to not only seek out the recordings by these amazing artists but also learn more about them as human beings.

Purporting to tell the history, inception, and impact of Chicago's own Chess Records initially created by first-generation Polish immigrants Leonard and Phil Chess (although Phil is mostly absent from the film aside from a few scenes in which we infer he’s the “other white guy” next to Adrien Brody), Martin simultaneously weaves in the story of the artists who would join the label including Leonard Chess’s first great star, Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright).

In yet another phenomenal, chameleon-like performance by the great Jeffrey Wright -- the type of which we’re beginning to take for granted on—he tackles Muddy first as a sharecropper in Mississippi whose life was forever changed by a happy accident when his voice was recorded by two men from Fisk University who had initially set out see record the fault music of the late Robert Johnson. After they learned that Johnson had passed away, they were directed to Muddy’s porch and following an impromptu recording that gave the future “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “Mannish Boy” the first opportunity to hear the way he sounded on vinyl, he memorably noted he felt as though, “I’m meeting myself for the first time.”

It was with those determined and confident words that Muddy packed his guitar and headed north without looking over his shoulder to Chicago where he formed two important relationships. The first was with Geneva (Gabrielle Union) who would become his longtime love and the second was none other than Leonard Chess, with whom Muddy began making records, taking part in payola schemes, getting him as well as the rest of the Chess lineup of artists unprecedented air-play and treating them to shiny new Cadillacs sometimes without informing them that it was being taken out of their royalties.

Admittedly in the 1950s, both the friendship and relationship -- especially when money was involved -- between both white and black individuals was charged with complexity over whether or not the musician was being exploited and the idea that a white man may have been needed to be the front for the organization in order to lead to the era of Motown but Martin never makes any concrete judgments about her characters.

This is especially evident as other artists join the roster and Martin manages to interlace some double-standards and new thoughts coming from all involved—mostly in the form of Muddy’s greatest harmonica player and the seventeen year old hot-headed prodigy Little Walter (Columbus Short) and the fiery and proud Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) who has extremely firm ideas about what we sense he felt was an evolved version of “slave” and “master.” Rounding out Martin’s ensemble piece, we’re also introduced to the terrific writer and current owner of Chess Records who has turned it into a museum, Mr. Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), and two of the most legendary acts—Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles).

Although it was Muddy that paved the way, eventually it was Berry’s blend of country and rockabilly helped destroy racial barriers playing sold out gigs to white and black listeners alike along with appearing on television. Yet, unfortunately while his song “Sweet Little Sixteen” was blatantly stolen by The Beach Boys for the background of “Surfin’ USA,” and his career was cut short when he was imprisoned for driving a white female minor across state lines (making his dalliances with young women not that much different than Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley), soon a savior managed to enter the recording studio at precisely the right moment in the form of the exquisite yet contradictorily volcanic Ms. Etta James (Knowles).

Despite her deceptively sweet appearance, James was a woman who as Leonard described “lived the blues” instead of just singing about them. With a horrific addiction to heroin and countless family problems including a failure to get her rumored father Minnesota Fats to acknowledge his paternity, James as played by Knowles is walking heartbreak. Anyone who thought that the singer’s vast improvement as an actress in Dreamgirls was a fluke will be immediately taken aback by her dynamic portrayal in this film.

In the part written exclusively for the musician by Ms. Martin and amazingly shooting all of her scenes in just six days, Knowles is able to effortlessly capture James’ tough-talking demeanor, her more vulnerable side opposite Oscar winner Adrien Brody (in a few scenes that really send sparks flying), and most importantly bring the house down in recording session performances that will send shivers down your spine as she sings not just “At Last,” but also “Once in a Lifetime,” and “I’d Rather Go Blind.”

While indeed there is some accurate criticisms about liberty being taken with the facts, Martin surpasses expectations by avoiding the trappings of strict biopic and moving into a far more daunting challenge of bringing to life several figures at the same time. To tell you just the Leonard Chess story, or just the Muddy Waters story, or just the Chuck Berry story, or just the Etta James story wouldn't have captured the real story namely that of the blues which is what provided the soundtrack of the American experience.

Over the past few years, we've been inundated with biopics and while some of them have been exceptional such as James Mangold’s Walk the Line-- the decision to move away from that tried and true paradigm and instead embrace the idea of presenting us with an authentic sense of time and place is what sets Cadillac Records apart.

In the incredibly worthwhile roughly twenty-seven minute making-of-featurette “Playing Chess,” the filmmaker accurately describes the approach in the work of the cast as “everybody’s playing a different instrument.” Effectively managing to make the most of their limited budget by ensuring the production and costumer designers always knew what was going to be seen by the camera at any given moment to avoid unnecessary expenses, the largely female production team discuss the methods they used in augmenting the story from using both color and texture to truly “sell the period.”

Employing a large amount of blues, greens, purples and browns near the opening—Martin reveals in the design featurette “Once Upon a Blues,” that she was extremely careful about avoiding the color red until the moment Chuck Berry and rock ‘n roll are officially introduced. In addition to providing deleted scenes, the filmmaker also takes part in a feature-length commentary track that would be of extreme interest to music buffs as Martin’s knowledge of the characters, Chess records, music, and the time period is extraordinarily detailed, which is evident from the start as she helps clear the air on factual items that didn’t make it into the movie.

Unfortunately overlooked in a crowded December filled with a large amount of Oscar bait pictures making their way daily into theatres across the states, luckily Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s underrated gem is now available in both DVD and Blu-ray high definition where the sound on even the DVD alone manage to heighten the sound of James’ “At Last” or Waters’ “Mannish Boy” to concert level quality despite your sound system setup.

Download the Standard or Deluxe
Soundtrack From iTunes
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Download "The Best of Chess"
(The Original Recordings of the Songs
Heard in the Film Via the iTunes Album Icon Below)