“It feels like I met myself for the first time,” marvels McKinley Morganfield, after Alan Lomax plays back his field recording of McKinley playing the blues. The year is 1941, and within ten years, this southern sharecropper’s son will be at the wheel of his own brand new Cadillac, a first generation pop star, of sorts, courtesy of Polish immigrant Leonard Chess and his company, Chess Records. That would be under his stage name: Muddy Waters.
Played by Jeffrey Wright – the outstanding American stage actor whose film work includes Basquiat and playing Colin Powell in W. – Waters accepts his belated success with a mixture of delight, consternation, gratitude and pride. Celebrity is a new kick for this African-American man and it takes some getting used to.
The relationship between the blues man and Chess (Adrien Brody) is the backbone of Darnell Martin’s movie. Muddy has probably never met a less racist white in his life. They even share a hotel room together, touring the blues belt – though Leonard excuses himself when a couple of fans show up at their door. He’s married, he says, to more consternation.
An African-American woman who made I Like It Like That 15 years ago, and has since made mostly TV drama, Martin doesn’t make a big deal out of it, but questions about the extent of the bond between the white businessman and the black artists bubble away throughout the film. Leonard may be a good guy, but there is always a chasm between his experience and theirs. In the case of Muddy Waters, their friendship can bridge the gap, but with others the outcome is not so amicable.
The hair trigger harmonica (or “harp”) player Little Walter (Columbus Short), for instance, is a generation younger than Muddy, a surrogate son in fact, and he isn’t inclined to doff his cap at the white man just for recognizing his talent. In the one of the film’s strongest scenes he arrives at the recording studio in a brand new Cadillac convertible – that is, he’s converted it for the Chicago summer by ripping off the doors. It’s a customization that brings him to the attention of the cops, and suddenly the old racism is right back out in the open, and there’s nothing Leonard can do to put it back in the bottle.
Then there’s beautiful Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), with her lovely voice and fierce pride, and a roiling mass of neuroses, mistrust, anger and hurt underneath. (Who knew – I sure didn’t – that she believed the pool player Minnesota Fats was her father?). Beyonce proves that she’s a real actress here, though after Ray, Walk the Line and Walk Hard (etc) we’ve had enough images of singers struggling with drug addiction to last us a lifetime.
More fun – and less troubled – Mos Def has a ball as the ostentatious proto-rock 'n' roller Chuck Berry – brilliant casting! – and British actor Eamonn Walker steals the show as the formidable Howlin’ Wolf, a guy who prefers to drive his own beaten up truck than a swanky Caddy on the never-never.
That’s a lot of talent to pack into 109 minutes, and Martin takes some dramatic shortcuts along the way. In reality, for instance, Leonard’s brother Phil was an equal partner in the business, but he’s nowhere to be seen here. The chronology seems to get a bit scrambled towards the end too. So don’t treat this history of the blues as gospel. But the all-star approach does stop the movie getting bogged down in the highs and lows that tend to dog musical biopics. Cadillac Records is a very smooth ride – and I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that the music’s great.
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