The Cadillac of Biopics

22 12 2008

cadillac

“Cadillac Records” 2008

Starring: Adrien Brody, Jeffrey Wright, Gabrielle Union, Beyonce Knowles, Mos Def

“Cadillac Records” tells the story of legendary musician Muddy Waters, and his ascent from Mississippi sharecropper to national billboard chart-topper. Waters provides the anchor to which others characters attach themselves, and through him we gain insight into such brilliant and tortured musicians as Chuck Berry, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, and the tragic and fascinating Etta James.

The film is principally a tribute to those Black American musicians who played crucial roles in the rise of Rock and Roll in an era when their contribution, and often mere presence, was openly scorned. The stories aren’t always pleasant, but the truths of their lives prove far more compelling than the one-dimensional personas many are content to accept. The film succeeds by refusing to glorify the personal lives of the musicians featured. They were irrefutably talented, but they were also human. This film demonstrates the high price of fame, and the undercurrent of tragedy that often comes with it.

The performances in this film are exceptional, though one in particular is unexpectedly moving. Beyonce Knowles neither looks nor sounds much like the illustrious Etta James, but her dynamic and captivating performance in “Cadillac Records” is well worth the price of a ticket.

Mos Def also deserves acknowledgment for his portrayal of Chuck Berry. I saw him act for the first time earlier this year (my first time watching, not his first time acting) in The Woodsman, a disturbing story about pedophilia in which he played a young but seasoned detective distrusting of any person with a compulsion that targets children. In that film, he was spot-on as a good cop who had simply seen too many innocent victims to empathize with a “recovering” child molester. In Cadillac Record, his role is almost flip-flopped. He plays an easygoing musician with an unsavory preference for underage women, who, unfortunately for him, happen to be white in a time when any sexual mingling of the races promised severe consequences. Again, though his character was less than perfect, the performance was a pleasure to behold.

♦♦♦

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