Movie Review: Cadillac Records

Above: In Cadillac Records, Beyoncé Knowles plays Etta James,
the legendary artists of a Chicago music label. (Sony BMG Film/
Eric Liebowitz)

Tadias Magazine
By Playthell Benjamin

Wow! An Instant Classic

Published: Monday, March 9, 2009

New York (Tadias) – Ever so often a movie comes along that captures the spirit of an age, Parkwood Pictures’ Cadillac Records is such a movie. A period piece set in the racially tumultuous era between the end of the great depression and the outbreak of World War II in the early 1940’s, and the turbulent 1960’s when the walls of segregation – which had defined the lives and art of the bluesmen in fundamental ways – came tumbling down, we follow the lives, loves and musical careers of the legendary Mississippi bluesmen who created the “Delta Blues.’ And one of the many achievements of this remarkable movie is the way it shows how their sound was the bedrock upon which a multi-billion dollar industry was built, as the musical styles that became world famous as Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, and Hard Rock all evolved from these blues roots – what the perceptive music critic Robert Palmer calls “Deep Blues” in his authoritative book by that name.

As in any historical movie the sets, costumes, language, etc play a critical role in the ability of the film to transport us back in time. But the ultimate time machine is the music they played back then. The much celebrated Afro-American novelist Ralph Ellison, reflecting on the birth of Be-bop in Harlem’s “Minton’s Play House,” observed that “Music gives resonance to memory.” And as this movie is about the migration of Mississippi country blues musicians to the great city of Chicago, we have a treasure trove of sound portraits that mirror their journey.

As a student and teacher of history I am intensely interested in historical drama and fictions. I am especially thrilled when I see another important slice of black life successfully portrayed on the giant silver screen, where it literally becomes larger than life. And if Woodrow Wilson – a former US President and Princeton history Professor – thought D.W. Griffiths racist propaganda film Birth of a Nation was “history written by lightening,” Cadillac Records is history written with enlightenment.

Cadillac Record’s is remarkably candid in portraying the racist social etiquette and oppressive political system of white supremacy that it supported. And it does so without ever becoming preachy; the play remains the thing, and the imperatives of dramatic art are ever observed. In this film the muses are served in fine fashion; even while the harsh realities of the sharecropper south where hunger, poverty and random white violence were omnipresent, and the dangerous cities of the north with its seductions of vice and the catharsis of violence, are graphically portrayed.

This film however, does not stop at portraying the most obvious aspects of race prejudice and the discriminatory treatment that results from it, but also looks at questions of class and ethnicity and subtly meditates on how they have shaped the contours of American culture. There is a richness here that inevitably results when a film maker – who is, at their best, a celluloid dramatist – takes an honest look at the cultural complexity of the United States of America. For they are sure to find, as our former Mayor David Dinkins elegantly put it: “A gorgeous mosaic.”

In the opening scenes of this movie we are given an inside glimpse of what it was like being the poor son of Polish Jewish immigrants in Chicago in the portrayal of a young Leonard Chess. Convincingly played by Adrien Brody – a talented actor whom I first saw in The Pianist, a movie about the plight of the Polish Jewish community during the German Nazi occupation – Chess is hungry for success in America after the father of the lady he wanted to marry spurned his request for her hand with the pronouncement: “Your father and I are from the same shit hole in Poland. I didn’t travel all this way to have my daughter marry some schmuck from the same village!”

On another occasion when Muddy waters and Leonard chess were traveling the back roads of Mississippi by car Muddy asks Chess why his family traveled across the vast oceans from Poland to come to Chicago, Chess replies by asking him why his “ass left Mississippi” to come to Chicago? This episode alludes to the shared experience of African-Americans and Eastern European Jews who hailed from Poland and the Russian Pale. For both of them Chicago was a city of refuge and hope as they sought to escape racial discrimination and random violence. It is through the use of such representative anecdotes, accompanied by the employment of artful intelligent visuals, that much of the sociological depth and complexity of this story is simplified and given a human dimension. And like all good historical dramas, Darnell Martin, the writer and director of this splendid art film, have shown excellent taste and judgment selected the right issues and episodes to capture the zeitgeist of the era.

**********

From a purely artistic point of view this script was a writer’s delight. The characters that people this flick are the right stuff for the making of legends. Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, the harmonica virtuoso Little Walter ,and the legendary Willie Dixon, composer of blues hits such as “My Babe” and “Hootchie Kootchie Man” are all there These modern day troubadours took the trials and triumphs that comprise the vicissitudes of life universal to the human condition and set them to song – that’s why their music touched and inspired people across racial, ethnic, class, and national boundaries.

This should come as no surprise however, after all, as Albert Murray, the preeminent commentator on the philosophy, esthetics and cultural significance of the blues tells us in his seminal book Stomping the Blues: “The blues as music” is the antidote to “the blues as such.” In other words, while most people who hear the blues outside of its social and cultural context think of the music as sad, Murray argues that the blues sensibility is just the opposite of “sack cloth and ashes.” In fact, as the title of his book suggest, musicians stomp the blues to chase the Blues away.

All of this is captured marvelously in Cadillac Records and gives it the ring of truth. It’s insightfulness into the philosophy and esthetics of the blues is clearly on display in the way they portray the lives and personalities of the bluesmen and the milieu in which they thrived. As Mr. Murray has observed, the blues is more likely to celebrate the joi de vivre of Afro-American life than to wallow in self-pity and sadness. Put differently, the blues is party music, the cure for depression. And the bluesmen in Cadillac Records partied all the time as they created great art that continues to win the hearts of fans all over the world

Jeffrey Wright is as good playing Muddy Waters as Jamie Fox was playing Ray Charles, and Jamie won the Academy Award for his performance!” One can take the measure of an actor’s skill by the way they interpret the subtleties of character, idiosyncratic gestures expressed in body language and nuances of speech. I didn’t know Muddy Waters like I knew Ray Charles, but I feel the same way about Wright’s portrayal of him as Albert Einstein felt when the Rabbi’s demanded to know if the scientist believed his theories explained how god created the universe.

To wit Einstein replied: “No, but I know that he could have done it that way.” Wright is that convincing in the role. Having grown up around southern black musicians I am amazed at the accuracy of the portrait of them the actors render in Cadillac Records. It is a tribute to their diligence in preparing for the roles they sought to play. And anybody who was fortunate enough to hear them interviewed on BET and elsewhere, knows that these great performances were inspired by the actors’ profound respect for their characters.

Cedrick the Entertainer give a solid performance as the level headed Willie Dixon, and Eamonn Walker is sensational as The Howling Wolf, one of the most interesting and original of the Mississippi bluesmen. A man of imposing stature, Eamonn Walker can go from a smiling geniality to a murderous scowl with a twitch of his face muscles and a gesture from his heavily muscled ebony frame. When we consider the fact that he is a British actor, Walker’s amazing rendering of backwoods Mississippi speech through a marvelous control of his voice and an amazing ear for nuance, his performance is a tour de force that stands out in a cast of great performers.

It is a pity that the academy does not give awards for ensemble acting, because great performances are common fare in this film. For instance Columbus Short’s portrayal of the innovative harmonica virtuoso Little Walter would certainly qualify as a great performance by any objective measure. He was like a man possessed by the spirit of a great ancestor and had become one with his subject. Although I thought Moss Def was miscast as Chuck Berry since he looks nothing like him, Will smith would have been perfect for the part, his performance was splendid. After a while the physical disparity seemed trivial.

As any story about great blues musicians must be, the cast of Cadillac Records is male dominated and the narrative is told from the point of view these gun toting, free spirited, libertine song poets. A great part of the achievement of this film is the way in which it shows how the blues man was a symbol of black male freedom and potency in a society where the full power of the armed state was employed to crush any manifestation of it.

Having acknowledged the dominance of male concerns and the outstanding performances of the male actors, let me hasten to acknowledge that Gabriel Union and elegant hot chocolate beauty, revealed the depth of her talents as an actress playing the stoic but earthy wife of the ebullient philanderer Muddy Waters. And it remains true that casting Beyonce Knowles as Etta James was a singular act of genius. Having dominated the pop music charts for several years now, with this moving picture the great singer has come of age as an actress. Abandoning the glamorous persona that is her stock in trade, Beyonce gained over twenty pounds in order to give authenticity to her performance as the young Etta James – a boozy dope fiend who courted tragedy because of a deep inner-pain that she seemed to almost nurture as the source of her tortured, though profoundly beautiful, art.

This role demonstrates Beyonce’s range as an actress, for she is called upon to recreate emotions that cannot come from her well of experience with the ways of a dope fiend and bar fly who appears to have occasionally turned tricks when she was just starting out. In regard to all these tawdry matters, Ms. Knowles’ well is dry. Hence it is all artifice in the truest sense of the word, for interpreting the complex highly neurotic character that was the youthful Etta James, the illegitimate daughter of the legendary white pool hustler “Minnesota Fats,’ and a black prostitute he hooked up with. In the film she is obsessed with gaining the recognition of her father, and that is the deepest source of her pain.

Beyonce’s performance ranks right up there with Diana Ross’ portrayal of Billie Holliday, another tragic vocal genius, in Lady Sings the Blues, Angela Basset’s rendering of Tina Turner in What’s Love go to do with It? And Jennifer Hudson’s portrait of Florence Ballard in Dream Girls must be added to the list of great performances by black actresses in bio-pics. Hudson won the Oscar for her role, and Ms. Ross and Ms. Basset would have won if everybody played fair. However, unlike the other three ladies Ms. Basset cannot sing so she was forced to act her way through it, just as Halle Barry had done in her powerful portrayal of the beautiful and superbly gifted Dorothy Dandridge – a role I always thought would have been better suited for Vanessa Williams who, like Dorothy, is a triple threat. She can sing, dance, and act with seemingly equal facility – and she is brilliant at all three.

However the three singers all gave inspired performances in their roles, buoyed by the wonderful repertoire of American song that the role provided. While I do not intend to make invidious comparisons because I believe that both Ms Hudson and Ms Knowles are great singers – Prima Donna Absoluta’s of the dynamic Gospel/Soul style –I must nevertheless confess that I found Beyonce’s rendition of the Etta James hits ‘At Last” and “I’d Rather Go Blind Baby, Than Watch You Walk Away From Me,” to be without equal. When she sang “At Last” our spirits were buoyed by thoughts of past loves that now seem perfect, or we reveled in a newly found love; it was a joy. And when she sang I’d Rather Go Blind” there wasn’t a dry eye in the house…this writers eyes included. It was a bravura performance …Bravo!


About the Author:

Playthell Benjamin, former columnist for The New York Daily News, is a Harlem based critic, novelist and an award-winning journalist. His articles have been published in major publications and websites, including the The Guardian, The New York Daily News, BlackElectorate.com, and many more.

15 Responses to “Movie Review: Cadillac Records”


  1. 1 Ejr Mar 13th, 2009 at 11:24 am

    Let me add my two cents. While Beyounce did what she did, her acting did not affect anything. Ross’ acting brought Holiday alive and revived an interest in Holliday. Furthermore, Lady Sing The Blues was an internationa hit and remained in the move theaters for several months, Beyounce’s movie sank within a few weeks.

    The success of a portrayal lies in not only capturing the essence of the person who is portrayed but how that portrayal affects those who watch it. Ross affected many by her portrayal which beyounce did nit.

    As for who has the better voice? Diana Ross did it long, long ago and it is she who shall be remembered as an artist who contributed in disproportion to self. Beyounce will be remembered as someone who thought she would be the next Diana Ross.

  2. 2 105th and Euclid Mar 14th, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    It’s March 14, 2009, and here I sit in the Columbus (Ohio) Metropolitan Library. I just put CADIILLAC RECORDS on reserve.

    I’m number 209 on the waiting list.

    Somebody must like the movie . . . but it looks like it’ll be three or four months before I get to see it.

  3. 3 Paul S Mar 16th, 2009 at 7:16 am

    BRAVO…while Beyounce did a good job on the movie, she was NO Diana Ross, who brought Billy Holiday’s story to LIFE..and if Liza Minelli didn’t get the sympathy vote at the Academy Awards that year, Miss Ross for sure would have won for BEST ACTRESS..without a doubt.

  4. 4 V.W. Mar 24th, 2009 at 11:24 pm

    Fantastic movie and a great but mostly untrue story. The performances are great and a good solid cast. But what I want to know what happened to Phil Chess? Phil and Leonard were both emotionally and monitarily involved in the day to day operations at Chess Records. Also where was Koko Taylor? Its too bad these two important figures were left out. Its too bad such a stellar movie with such great performances has such a historically flawed story in it’s telling. The truth would have been far more interesting than fiction told here. For all of that I still love and recommend the movie just on the acting and musical performances. Also I believe it captured the atmosphere of the late forties to early sixties in the music industry in Chicago.

    Just my two cents.

    V.W.

  5. 5 Jim Mar 30th, 2009 at 12:10 am

    I have to take issue with the couple of people who have a hard time admitting that Beyonce nailed this part, especially the singing. People who achieve the level of success Beyonce has get there for a reason and she showed me in this film that as a singer she would have been a star no matter what decade you dropped her into.

  6. 6 s Apr 30th, 2009 at 6:56 pm

    she did a great job!!

  7. 7 Troy May 10th, 2009 at 12:56 am

    Beyonce in my opinion is very very overrated, and to say that she is an actress is stretching it a bit. I will give it to her that this was a roll that shows a bit more depth than previous roles she’s taken, but when she keeps choosing roles that showcases her as a singer tires itself out after awhile, especially just coming out of a film where she’s a singer in a group, it becomes the same old routine. Though Angela Bassett gave an excellent, but sometimes over the top performance as Tina Turner, It was Miss Ross’s performance as Billie Holiday that stands out in Movie Cinema. One thing I can agree with the author on is she was snubbed the Oscar Award for this performance due to the politics that Liza Minnelli was one of Hollywoods Royalties and Miss Ross was just a singer and first time Screen Actress who wowed the nations with a gradeur and believable performance of Billie Holiday. To strip down from the glamourous Diva with no make-up and wild eyes and hair turn drug user Billie Holiday and thrown into a 4 feet by 4 feet padded room and tied up with a straight jacket as she goes through withdrawel, had Oscar written all over it. Unlike Beyonce’s self-induced cockiness that she will win an Oscar and Tony award, her performance falls way short of that in which Miss Ross rose to fame in Billie Holiday. So shame on the author for the comparison of the two roles and the two stars. Diana came from the projects and worked her way to the top in music and movies, Beyonce was born with her fathers money and his dream of pimping his daughter out to become the singer she is. She may be a well-known name now and for the past seven years, but she’ll never be as famous and well-known as Diana Ross.

  8. 8 pearl cleage May 28th, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    this is a wonderful movie. the actors do a great job and the script is nuanced and rich with emotional details. i have watched it over and over and their performances yield something new every time. jeffrey wright gives an outstanding performance as muddy waters. writer/director darnell martin did an amazing job of presenting these very human characters without making any of the usual judgments. the scenes between muddy waters and leonard chess strike the right note of complexity and ambivalence. i loved it!

  9. 9 TivoliEclipse Jun 12th, 2009 at 8:02 pm

    I’ve heard so many negative reviews from moviegoers not quite ready or capable of making an honest or critical assessment. They panned it! How can you pan the performances, the music, the story, the nuances, the tears that feeled so real? Beyonce’s performance was stellar, brilliant, Gabrielle Union’s performance — whew! You actually believed she loved Muddy. She said, “I love him… don’t ever talk to me about his other women… ever…” Lil Wayne was not afraid of anyone, not Muddy, not the Police; Jeffrey Wright, WAS Muddy… likeable country boy. A southern boy who cried like a baby privately, “You better know I know it!; and the Big Bad Wolf, “Don’t talk to him no mo… I’m the band leader, I reckon you never worked with one before.” The rivalry between Wolf and Muddy… Huh, palpable. Mos Def’s Chuck Berry… wonderfully easy to suspend belief and get schooled about America’s racial and decadent history.

    How can you dismiss the writing and Directing? Unsophisticated and immature people walked out of the theater and shouted, “Don’t see it,” to people standing in the queue for the next showing.

    What is really ironic… people wonder why Beyonce was cast as Etta James… She’s the Executive Producer chickenheads! Beyonce WAS Etta James like Diana Ross WAS Billie Holiday.

  10. 10 TivoliEclipse Jun 13th, 2009 at 9:31 am

    Correction:

    “Lil ‘Walter’ was not afraid of anyone, not Muddy, not the Police; Jeffrey Wright, WAS Muddy… likeable country boy. A southern boy who cried like a baby privately, “You better know I know it!; and the Big Bad Wolf, “Don’t talk to him no mo… I’m the band leader, I reckon you never worked with one before.” The rivalry between Wolf and Muddy… Huh, palpable. Mos Def’s Chuck Berry… wonderfully easy to suspend ‘disbelief’ and get schooled about America’s racial and decadent history.”

    Adrien Brody gave a great performance as always as well!

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