Monday, August 17, 2009

Hit Machines

Cadillac Records
DVD via DVDPlay

The money, the licensing rights, and the actors are all in place, so why can't Hollywood make a good 50's or 60's music biopic? Are the irresistible repeating plot points of the artistic lifestyle such that every movie must be variations on a theme, lots of scenes that feel static and obligatory and the only smiles ones of recognition rather than enlightenment? Could be. Walk Hard still stands as the pinnacle of the current interest in the format, as Spinal Tap dominated its own era -- when it's not actually parody, the rock lifestyle is way too close to it for its own good.

Cadillac Records is as empty and disappointing as its slightly ritzier predecessor, Dreamgirls, but for different reasons. The film doesn't lack for good music; even star-turn new versions of Chuck Berry and Etta James songs by Mos Def and Beyonce don't diminish the excitement associated with the material. Dreamgirls looked and felt more historically accurate and perhaps did a better job setting up the larger social context, although it's a bit of an apples to oranges comparison -- set about a decade or so earlier, the advances won by Chess Records' black artists were incremental at best. But at least this film feels the right connection to the music. Dreamgirls went to a weird other place that wasn't very black and wasn't Motown at all when the singing started; Cadillac Records doesn't share that failing. The film is true to the way Muddy Waters and his band sounded and precise about who had what hits when.

What it doesn't do is build much in the way out of real characters out of its historical figures. Jeffrey Wright has the most screen time to build a performance out of his Waters, and he puts some good work in, although it never really feels like the man himself the way Ray was sometimes able to accomplish. Adrien Brody's Leonard Chess seems contradictory and unresolved; the screenplay never makes up its mind entirely whether he was a bold pioneer or a crass, bigoted opportunist. Brody can't play the role down the middle. Beyonce's Etta James goes from new shining face to hardcore heroin fiend in three scenes, the most obvious victim of a screenplay that's long on the sort of pronouncements Walk Hard satirized fiendishly and short on anything that seems like real people talking. Emmanuelle Chiriqui and Gabrielle Union are both ill-served by incomplete Supportive Wife roles, and Cedric the Entertainer's cornpone accent and witless, overwritten monologues as narrator Willie Dixon make this a rare unwelcome appearance for him.

The tunes, however, are excellent, and the major point that the movie should make is not missed -- when Elvis Presley appears on a black-and-white screen singing a castrated cover of Little Walter's hot-sex-on-a-platter "My Babe," you feel kicked in the gut the same way the real inventors of rock and roll did at the time. Dreamgirls didn't club you over the head with the political dimension of the music the way this movie does, but the music didn't feel at all attached to that revolutionary furor. In Cadillac Records, the actors seem like puppets whenever they're not playing, but at least the filmmakers have gotten those most central parts basically correct. That counts as progress in my book, but I'm still waiting for the day when I'll see a serious music film that has as much to say about its subject as Spinal Tap, Walk Hard, and All You Need Is Cash do.

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