Etta James blasts her way through a sad song, but it's not good enough. Leonard Chess taunts her and claims she's not "woman enough" for such a song. Didn't anyone ever walk out on her and leave her heartbroken? Take that and put it in the song, he suggests. She steps up for another take, and -- although she has tears in her eyes now -- it sounds pretty much the same. The main trouble with Cadillac Records is that no one took aside writer/director Darnell Martin with the same advice. Scene after scene, Cadillac Records is thin, flat and rote.
Like all biopics, the new film skims over years and years of history in a brief fling. All the moments are historical; they describe what happened, but not who they happened to. Sometime in the 1940s -- the movie is rarely very clear as to what year it is -- Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) runs a junkyard and decides to get into "race music." He moves from a club to a record label and signs Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), a blues guitarist straight off the plantation. There are a few nice, early scenes showing these two men touring together, sharing meals and getting the stink-eye from local rednecks, but the movie shies away from developing this friendship.
Muddy brings aboard the volatile harmonica player Little Walter (Columbus Short) and eventually gives him his first taste of liquor, which leads to a full-blown bout of alcoholism (this rock biopic cliché was ridiculed and should have been buried forever in last year's spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story). Chess then signs the giant, monster-like Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), and Muddy takes an instant dislike to him. Once again, this rivalry is never fleshed out. (I would like to have seen an entire movie about this Wolf; he's mesmerizing and positively terrifying!)
Then comes Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles), and though Chess has apparently remained faithful to his wife, he clearly nurses something more than a crush on Etta. Etta remains hard and standoffish, most of the time, though Chess claims he can "see her." Good thing he can, because we can't. Moreover, the poor wife (Emmanuelle Chriqui) barely registers a blip; in one scene she looks worriedly at a magazine with Etta on the cover; what's she thinking? Does she know what's going on? Poor Gabrielle Union fares only slightly better as Muddy's long-suffering significant other. She at least has an interesting scene in which she explains how she doesn't have any dreams because "someone has to keep their feet planted on the ground."
Chuck Berry storms on the scene, and though Mos Def plays him with a very appealing, cocky gusto, he also quickly turns into wallpaper. When Chuck goes to jail, the movie drops him, just as it drops everyone else who doesn't happen to appear onscreen at that given moment. If only Cadillac Records could have found an angle on this story, or some sort of focus. The most obvious one would have been the friendship between Muddy and Chess. In a radio interview, Muddy calls Chess "family" and Chess appears genuinely moved. But otherwise, the movie shuffles them around to better serve its version of history. Another angle could have been Chess' obsession with Etta; how far did it go? What did it mean to him? To her? As it stands, we never get inside either of them.
A third way to go would have been similar to Allison Anders' underrated Grace of My Heart (1996), which told a fictionalized story of the Brill Building. Everything in that film happened through the eyes of its main character (Illeana Douglas), a songwriter who dreams of being a singer. Because she's lower on the totem pole, she can watch all the legendary proceedings almost unnoticed. Instead, Cadillac Records cooks up the dubious device of having Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer) narrate the story, but even that device is dropped when it's not needed.
This general, rambling flatness spreads throughout the rest of the film. I even found myself longingly recalling such films as Ray (2004) and Dreamgirls (2006), neither of which I particularly liked, but which at least had their energetic moments. The music in Cadillac Records consists of half-hearted covers, capturing only the structure of the songs, but not their fire or spirit. (It's like listening to Eric Clapton's gutless "unplugged" version of "Layla" as opposed to the painful, ferocious original.) Moreover, the lip-syncing is among the worst I've ever seen -- and that includes Mos Def and Beyoncé, who presumably sing their own tunes -- giving the movie a rushed, slapdash feel.Presumably, Cadillac Records is getting a December release for Oscar consideration; generally biopics yield nominations in the acting categories. Wright is so good with his line readings and facial expressions that he often manages to fill in the many blanks in Muddy's character, but I wouldn't call it one of the year's most accomplished performances; it's more like a last-minute rescue. Mos Def is fun, but his performance isn't particularly deep. The other characters remain ciphers. Interestingly, there's another Leonard Chess movie floating around, Who Do You Love, starring Alessandro Nivola. According to reports, it's supposed to be quite good and has yet to pick up a distributor. Leonard Chess may once have cared about injecting fire and life and personality into his product, but clearly the movie business does not.