It is difficult enough to script a biopic of one famous person because
it requires shoehorning a lifetime of notable achievements into two hours.
If that were not enough, it also must make that lifetime somehow
cinematic, and not just something left over from The History Channel. If
one life represents a writing challenge, imagine how difficult it must be
to do a half dozen. Now imagine how difficult it would be if those six
were musicians, and one's film also had to present a representative
sampling of their music, thus eating up half the running time.
So much to do, so little time.
There's not much time left for character development, but despite the
inherent limitations defined by the scope of its ambitions, Cadillac
Records does a pretty damned good job at looking at each of these musical
giants in turn: Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, Etta James,
Little Walter, and Leonard Chess. Huh? Who's that last dude? He's the
white man who built the tiny recording studio which would eventually make
the others famous.
Big story. In many ways the obscure Leonard Chess (and his brother
Phil, who is still alive, and whose existence was purged from the record
for this film) invented Rock 'n Roll. Oh, it would have happened someday
anyway, but Leonard is the guy whose machinations got the great black
musicians on the air and even got their songs played on white stations.
Those songs in turn got covered and stolen by lots of white boys, and
those covers were great hits for Elvis, the Rolling Stones, and even The
Beach Boys, whose Surfin' USA was an unlicensed note-for-note lift of a
Chuck Berry song. OK, maybe Len didn't pay everyone the royalties they had
coming, but he made them all famous, and together, to paraphrase Rimbaud,
they invented the future.
Given only time for short impersonations and/or characterizations, the
main actors all do an excellent job of evoking the singers they play.
Every last one of the actors is excellent, and every one of the legends
comes to life: the proud and intimidating Howlin' Wolf, the calm Muddy
Waters, the effusive Little Walter, the fun-loving Chuck Berry, and the
angry Etta James. Considering that those actors had to be good enough
singers to impersonate musical legends convincingly, it is downright
impressive that they are all such good actors! Of course, we all know that
Beyonce can sing, but the one who surprised me the most was Columbus Short
as Little Walter. I had never heard of the guy before, but he not only
does a great job acting the film's most complex role, but that mofo can
flat-out sing, as he proves in a silky smooth rendition of My Babe. I
don't suppose that could actually be him playing the harmonica, but he
sure as hell faked it convincingly.
Anyway, the reason to see the film is really the music. There are
snippets from several songs, and some numbers are even sung from start to
finish. (Producer Beyonce made sure that actress Beyonce had plenty of
time on screen to do what she does best.) Is that so much music that it
gets in the way of the excessively ambitious story? Yes, there is some
merit to that argument, but the screenwriter had to ask "What's important
here, the depth of characterization or the music that changed the world?"
She chose to hit only the highlights of the story and to flesh the film
out with the music instead of with the drama of their lives. It's an
entertainment picture, with just a tiny hint of education hidden inside of
Only one regret. Aretha Franklin also recorded with Chess Records, but
for some reason the film consigned her to the wrong side of the ropes.
Sorry, Aretha, you're not on the list. No r-e-s-p-e-c-t.