Watching the scrappy, passionate Cadillac Records (Sony) only a week after the wondrous Milk, I found myself musing: What if we tried to be kinder to the biopic? It’s a genre that takes so much flak for being literal-minded, stodgy, and predictable. Yet in recent years, movies based on the real lives of public figures have also provided a place for superb work by actors (and sometimes directors as well). What if we regarded biopics in the same way we do jazz standards: a familiar, generic framework that each artist makes his or her own through improvisation? After all, no one asks why Ella Fitzgerald is singing that corny old “How High the Moon” again. We listen to what she does with the song.
Cadillac Records is a good place to start with this rethinking of the biopic, since it’s all about what one group of seminal black American musicians did with popular song. The film isn’t so much about the biography of any one person as it as about the life of a record label: Chess Records, the Chicago blues label owned by Polish immigrant Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), that launched the careers of Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Etta James, and other great “crossover” artists from the postwar years when blues begat rhythm and blues, which begat rock ’n’ roll.
Chess runs a nightclub on Chicago’s South Side, but after hearing the electrified Delta blues of Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), a transplanted Mississippi sharecropper, he decides to devote himself to recording and distributing “race records.” Chess is a complicated, at times unethical boss: He loves his musicians dearly but also fosters an unhealthy paternalism by distributing favors and Cadillacs in place of royalties, and he’s not above tossing around payola to get his recordings on the air. Muddy soon becomes a hot blues singer with a sky-high pompadour, a pink guitar, and all the women he wants—which, it seems, is quite a few.
Cadillac Records isn’t exactly big enough to be called sprawling, but as the subplots multiply, it does feel scattered. Muddy’s protégé, the needy and volatile harmonica player Little Walter (Columbus Short), is in love with Muddy’s loyal wife, Geneva (Gabrielle Union). Muddy also has a musical nemesis, Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), a giant, bass-voiced bluesman who loves to needle him about his financial dependence on Chess. And then, out of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, in walks Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles), a smack-addicted blues singer who claims to be the illegitimate child of pool player Minnesota Fats and who wastes no time in getting under Leonard Chess’ skin.
One of the strengths of Cadillac Records, written and directed by Darnell Martin, is that it’s a movie about music by someone who genuinely seems to enjoy listening to music. We see many performances in their entirety, most notably those by the two real-life musicians in the cast, Mos Def and Beyoncé Knowles. Mos Def is devilishly charming as Chuck Berry. His loose-limbed, physically antic performance captures the boyish, dirty-minded energy of early rock ’n’ roll, and his snide appraisal of “Surfin’ USA” (a note-for-note rip-off of his own “Sweet Little Sixteen,” for which Berry sued the Beach Boys and won) is worth more than a hundred solemn disquisitions on the white appropriation of black music.
As for Beyoncé—oh my goodness. She hasn’t yet understood what it is to be an ensemble actor; she always seems to be revolving by herself on a dais. But what a resplendent dais it is. Here, as in Dreamgirls, Beyoncé’s conscious display of vocal virtuosity becomes a part of the character she’s playing. Every one of Etta’s songs is delivered with the subtext, “Watch me while I nail this song.” And as calculated as her display of vulnerability may be, damned if we can stop watching. Jeffrey Wright is just the opposite: an actor so generous to his fellow castmates that even when, as here, he’s the best thing in the movie, he still blends seamlessly into the story. These radically different acting styles—the quiet craftsman and the tempestuous diva—might seem to belong in two separate movies. But if you go back to the biopic-as-jazz-standard model I mentioned above, you could think of them as two soloists—Billie Holiday and Coleman Hawkins, say—each doing their own thing with the song.
Slate V: The critics’ takes on Frost/Nixon, Cadillac Records, and Nobel Son