Film 74: Cadillac Records
My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.
We watched Talk Radio, which I still find myself thinking about. One of the good ones.
State and Main (2000) – Third or fourth time on the shortlist so it’ll happen one day…
A Midnight Clear (1992) – I’m definitely going to try and work back to this at some point, but it sounded a bit depressing (although fitting) for our Christmas watch.
Point Break (1991) – Yes, I really should have seen this shouldn’t I…
Wall Street (1987) – Yes, I also really should have seen this shouldn’t I…
And the winner… Cadillac Records (2008)
I wrote about him a bit last time, so I won’t bore you with repetition. I was pleased to find out that he plays a radio dj in Cadillac Records though, which made me think I should tighten up the CRFC rules – maybe we should only link via an actor playing a character with the same job…
Cadillac Records and me
I don’t remember hearing much about it at the time. The film is about Chess Records, bastion of the blues. If I had heard about the film then I might have been quite tempted, as I’m a fan of American (and British) folk and roots music. Although mostly Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger albums at the point the film came out, I have more recently got into Howlin’ Wolf in a big way. Actually that’s thanks to the game Watchdogs, which features a soundtrack of Chicago-centric music. It’s a fun way to curate a soundtrack it turns out.
Anyway, we have a rather mixed relationship with based-on-real-life films here at CRFC so I picked it with a mixture of excitement and trepidation…
Chronicles the rise of Chess Records and its recording artists.
That’s a terrible blurb from IMDb. If you don’t know anything about Chess Records, it tells you nothing. And it sounds like it could be a documentary, with talking heads repeating the same old platitudes and wry anecdotes. Oh well.
The film is more accurately a retelling of Leonard Chess’ rise from backwoods dive bar owner to head of his own record label championing black musicians in 40s, 50s and 60s Chicago. That’s a more appealing proposition by far, particularly when you factor in Adrian Brody as Leonard Chess.
Let’s start with the most important thing in any music biopic: how they handle the songs. This was strange because I was convinced that most of the time the stars were miming to the original tracks. This seemed particularly apparent with Howlin’ Wolf and Etta James (played by Eamonn Walker and Beyonce respectively). It struck me as particularly odd to hire Beyonce and then only get her to mime along, so in some ways I wasn’t surprised when the credits rolled and it turned out the cast had in fact been singing themselves. Just in some cases the syncing seemed really off.
I never quite know how I feel about actors singing the tunes versus miming over the originals. Where a film is as about the music as this one is it seems churlish not to let the original music shine through, but that can then feel like you’re watching a professional karaoke video. Joaquim Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon had a good bash at Johnny Cash and June Carter in Walk The Line a few years back, but I spent the whole film wanting to listen to Johnny and June themselves… I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way of going about it, as I’d feel a bit distracted either way. Oh well, sucks to be me, I guess.
The bulk of the film centres on Chess and Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright – who really did seem present in the musical numbers), and I think focusing solely on this would have been a more interesting film. There’s a tendency with real-life-based stuff to try and tell the whole story, and that’s something you can do in a book or longform TV show but not as successfully in a film. Introducing Howlin’ Wolf for a bit of tension, Etta James for some big emotional bits and Chuck Berry for a little comedy is fine, but the whole shebang stretched almost to bursting. It’s not helped by a framing device of Willy Dixon (songwriter behind many of Chess’ big hits, and played by Cedric the Entertainer) adding some narration to the beginning and end. He was such a background presence during the film itself that it was quite a shock when he popped up again.
On the subject of Chuck Berry, he’s played by Mos Def here. I’m one of that handful of people who quite liked the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy from 2005. And I really liked Mos Def in it. He impressed me again here, with a sparkling wit, believably inspiring presence and great versions of some of Berry’s songs.
I made the classic blunder of looking up how closely the film resembles the truth, and to date that hasn’t improved any of the CRFC films. Timelines are problematically skew wiff, deaths of real people become malleable things used more for metaphor than for any realistic sense of a person’s life ending, hugely important people are erased from history… The more biographical films I see the more I appreciate Tarantino’s choice for the ending of Inglourious Basterds.
So here’s the real test of any music film, would I rather have spent that 2+ hours of the run time just listening to an album of the label’s greatest hits? And yes, in this case I would have. To be honest I could listen to Howlin’ Wolf’s Spoonful (written by Willy Dixon) for 2+ hours on a loop and have a jolly good time of it. Has it recontextualised the music for me? Not massively. And, crucially, I can’t trust its recontextualisation (totes a word) because it has distorted reality so much.
As is so often the case with biographical films, it was… fine. Messy and frustrating in places but with enough heart and, importantly, good tunes to pass the time adequately. But maybe just look up an album or two and have a good listen instead while reading Wikipedia.
Tim’s up next, and he’s a big Jeffrey Wright fan. Adrian Brody is in a lot of heavy films I should have seen (Hello The Pianist!) and a lot of terrible films I never want to see (Goodbye Predators!). Isaiah Whitlock Jr turns up briefly, so perhaps we’ll be heading off with The Bunk… And Beyonce adds a few options, though I will veto Goldmember as if my life depends on it.