I think if we’re all quite honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that the methods to approaching big-screen biopics are finite—especially biopics about musicians. In order for people’s lives to warrant the silver screen treatment in the first place, those lives have to possess extremes—a series of extenuating events that can be exploited for the highest dramatic impact the actors can generate. And face it: biopics are only as good as their actors. Sure, the writing has to be passable. If you’re lucky, the writing makes the actors’ jobs easy, but to our main point: the lives themselves provide the pathos. The writers need only heighten it. Yes, there are glaring historical omissions. Yes, there are all kinds of melodramatic liberties taken—especially in the film’s second to last scene of this film. But that, too, comes with the predictable territory of biopics, and good actors mine that melodrama for all its worth. That’s what makes a decent biopic so watchable.
Everyone involved in Darnell Martin’s Cadillac Records understands the pecking order of the biopic genre—which is precisely why this one works so well. Fortunately, the casting directors brought their A-game, tapping Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess, the Jewish-Polish immigrant who founded the most successful Blues and R&B label in Chicago history, Chess Records, and the incomparable Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, Chess’s flagship artist.
With Brody and Wright anchoring the film, the substantial supporting cast had no choice but to tow the Oscar-caliber line and, with very few exceptions, they did. Granted, Cedric the Entertainer was probably miscast as songwriter Willie Dixon. He always sounds like he’s faking an accent, rather than playing a role. It’s as though his acting ability doesn’t extend beyond varying the tenor of his voice. But since he was only in a few scenes, total (even his role as the narrator didn’t yield him that many lines), he wasn’t distracting at all.
Other actors with pretty small roles included Eamonn Walker as Howlin’ Wolf, Mos Def as Chuck Berry, and Beyonce as Etta James. Walker’s Howlin’ Wolf was a formidable presence with an icy glare, a grim smile, and serious control issues. Mos Def was suave, comical, and chagrined in equal measure. Beyonce was surprising as a pottymouth and walking wound, with a penchant for syringes and pints of gin. She has miles to go before she’ll be able to carry a role with no singing involved (and speaking of singing, I think I would’ve preferred it if she’d lip-synched… especially on “At Last,” but that’s a nitpick), but she’s grown leaps and bounds beyond her last high-profile role as Deena Jones in 2006’s Dreamgirls.
The real standout among the supporting cast was Columbus Short as Little Walter. From his first frame, a conk in his hair and a harmonica on his lips, Short electrifies in his role as the dark, wounded, and slightly psychotic blues singer. Short is strongest in scenes with Wright and Gabrielle Union (who plays Geneva, Muddy Waters’ wife and Little Walter’s surrogate mother), and was equal parts braggadocio and bitter tears. His turn as an infinitely talented boy whose self-loathing rendered him incapable of accepting the unconditional, parental love Muddy and Geneva offered is so nuanced that you completely forgot you were watching a very familiar archetype of tragedy.
If Short’s Little Walter wasn’t enough of a pleasant surprise, Adrien Brody’s chemistry with Beyonce was another of the film’s high points. Every time he looked at her, his eyes crinkled like a man rendered helpless (and with ol’ girl’s hip-hugging cadre of costumes, is it any wonder?). Even though this likely wasn’t a stretch for the dude who arrogantly slobbed Halle down at the Oscars, Brody played his feelings for Etta with a hat-in-hand humility that almost made his infidelity sympathetic.
And Wright–as the emotional center of the film—infused his Muddy with a resolve that was able to barrel through all kinds of indignity in order never to return to sharecropping. Though his face often flickered with resentment and jealousy (especially in the presence of Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry), his wry demeanor and uncanny intuition often acquitted him quickly.
As you can see, the strengths of Cadillac Records rest solely in its performers’ profound connections with one another. This film deserves multiple viewings, if for no other reason than the meticulousness with which Muddy mourns Walter or the tenderness with which Leonard gazes at Etta.
Don’t get us wrong. Plot-wise, there’s little you haven’t seen before: a once-pretty, now worn wife who puts up with no end of philandering, up to and including, raising another woman’s baby simply because she’s a Good Woman; the deeply troubled apprentice whose entree into a life of booze and blow lead to an early demise; music’s ability to temporarily transcend segregation; a patriarchal White producer getting high off his black clients’ supply (of talent); countless Caucasian musicians capitalizing on underpaid Black artists’ musicianship; and a swaggering chanteuse who futilely hopes her addictions will anestheticize her pain.
Still, go see it. It may be familiar territory, but there’s no reason it should’ve opened ninth—unless times really haven’t changed much since the heyday of payola and paternalism at all….