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CADILLAC RECORDS an Historical Drama
~Sharlet Liebel ©2008
You won’t believe the experience! Do you want action? You’ve got it. Booze and womanizing? Off the charts. Mood swings? Over the rainbow! Passion, history, reality, violence, bullets, death! It’s all there! The acting and direction are unflawed. Sound and acoustics are in surreal surround. Shockingly truthful and the story doesn’t spare the spectator. It moves quickly. One thing, for sure, do not expect apologetics for the carnality of the supplemental facts as excitement mounts on wings of friends and foes. Look for an Academy Awards presentation to actors, directors, and the full gamut of contributors. At this writing, however, it looks like a sleeper but it’s about all the good new movies out for an explanation of this slow starter.
It’s Chicago in 1947 when bar owner Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) scouts the streets for musicians. Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) plays a mean guitar and Little Walter (Columbus Short) is incredible on the harmonica. Little Walter becomes family to Muddy and his girlfriend Geneva (Gabrielle Union) who befriend him. Soon others are in competition to take center stage at the Chess Club. Big Willie Dixon (Cedric The Entertainer) is a gifted songwriter and talented bandleader. Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) has a huge ego as a blues singer and appears explosively on the scene. He is in everybody’s face but takes a particularly crazy dislike toward Muddy Waters, which is terrifying considering everyone is packing a pistol.
Promoter Leonard Chess has bigger ideas. He sets fire to his Club, collects the insurance and thus builds the best recording studio in the South Side of Chicago. He treats his talent well but owns their celebrity. They become icons driving new Cadillacs and owning houses that Chess gives them under contract. But Chess gets rich and they don’t touch the money. Except that there is the one surprise incident that you’ll have to see the movie to appreciate.
This is the movie bibliography that can now be told with scenes upfront and personal. Prepare for this movie about historical overtures and consequences of a different space in time. It is not for the faint of heart. Experience the personalities and inner circles of intertwining artists of the era when difficult living is exemplified in songs and in the music.
What draws the audience to the scene and actor? Is it not the passion of language, the swearing, and the confrontation! Don’t tease me about fear unless you want to see me sweat – they seem to say. Yes. It’s all there! Beauty, passion, terrible depravity, coarseness! But, believe me, it’s real. It’s believable.
You don’t want to miss it because this is the history of those times when blacks and whites don’t mix. These are the times when celebrated musicians carry guns for protection like they carry their guitars for strumming music from a gut feeling. The pistol is visible hardware leaving the house. Oh, Yeah. Lookout! Here comes trouble! But it’s a way of life and everybody carries protection.
And what we hear on the airwaves is called soul music. It started out Rhythm and Blues. Or jazz. Scenes are dark and dangerous in nightclubs and dismal personalities perpetuate the atmosphere of intrigue and danger.
It isn’t until 1955 that music starts changing the way people go to concerts and dance to the rhythms. The cross-over into mainstream (white) America begins with the exuberant talents of skinny Chuck Berry who marks the start of Rock-and-Roll with a lot of Country in his tunes and his trade-mark “duck walk.” This magical music is what you hear turning a generation of people from segregation to integration.
It seems about mid-movie before our celebrated Etta James (Beyonce’ Knowles) appears for her brilliant introduction. She saunters with an attitude that about decimates her audition. Not to be dissuaded by this prima donna, Chess challenges her persuasively with words that kill to really make her give a passionate audition of the magnitude he knows she is capable of. Wow! From then on, it’s AT LAST and nobody belts those words out greater than our passionate darling of song. Etta sings many more great numbers that flood the audience with memories.
Beyonce’ re-creates Etta’s dramatic stage presence, voice power, and range with uncompromising brilliance. Additionally, she performs as a seasoned actor over challenging scenes of passion that deliver a believable message about the diva.
Etta James, now a celebrated female singer, has crossed-over. Her songs are so popular that her words are articulated among lovers uniting and parting. It’s a time where none of the politically correct establishment could change the population before and until this music began to hit the sound waves. Marriages lived and died just as were the lives of these poetic geniuses. Harmonica and guitar carried with it the total man and woman when, it is said, musicians could rise above the din of depressed circumstances and become famous.
Muddy Waters survived the slums and he was invited to London where he was lauded for his musical accomplishments. In the end, some lives were lost and some were found.
Go alone if you plan to pick-up on history and nuances among and between the musicians because every scene is moving-right-along. The idea is to cram as much reality and as many connected musicians as possible into the hour and fifty minute long movie. Believe me, it explodes with powerful action and dialogue that one might think this movie is more than two hours long.