What do you call a film that’s got a stellar cast and advertised with little fanfare? An independent film? Sure. A low-budget film? Of course. A film geared toward African Americans? Definitely.
In Hollywood, executives still haven’t learned that a lot of their audience members are not white males in their teens, twenties and thirties. Audience members come in different shapes, sizes, colors and beliefs. When Sex and the City the Movie made over $100 million at the box office, they thought it was a phenomenon. Incidentally, these same executives thought the same thing about Waiting to Exhale, The Passion of the Christ, as well as Tyler Perry’s first few films.
As I sit here, writing this article, I’m shaking my head in dismay at how wrong executives can be. When it all boils down to it, audience members just want to see a good movie; we don’t care if the people are African American, Latin-American, Asian, blue, silver or green. A good story is a good story. That’s Screenwriting 101.
Such is the case with Cadillac Records, the story of the rise of Muddy Waters (played by Jeffrey Wright), Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), Little Walter (Columbus Short), Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker), and Chuck Berry (Mos Def).
Told with narration by Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), it goes from Muddy’s starting point as a plantation worker in the 1940s and ends with the beginning of his European tour as an opening act for The Rolling Stones.
Director and screenwriter Darnell Martin, a woman, has directed many Emmy-winning TV shows. She is quite good at getting her actors to go totally against type and out of character. (I will elaborate on that in a minute.) Martin evokes so much passion and feeling in her actors, I have seen a new side to most of the cast; characters that I’ve never seen before in any of them. If Martin doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar, she will have been robbed.
Speaking of the actors, Wright as Muddy Waters is very calm and secure. He’s got morals, but cheats on his wife and stays out late drinking. Wright’s contradicting character is relatable and not perfect; which I love. I wanted to smack Waters in one scene and kiss him in the other. I like what Wright did with Muddy.
I also liked how Adrien Brody carried his character. He wasn’t the underdog. He wasn’t the usual nerd that Brody tends to play. He was a grown man doing grown-man things. For the first time, I enjoyed seeing Brody on the screen.
Now, I have a confession to make: I have a schoolgirl crush on Columbus Short. It’s shameful, I know. But, it will be our little secret. We don’t even have to mention it. On the coattails of my “Martin got her actors to go totally out of character” theme, Short plays a man who is constantly high and drunk. His Little Walter is hot-headed (he shoots a man in the face for stealing his name) and crazy-eyed. And, I’ve never been more proud of an actor. It’s a joy watching him grow as an actor. He’s even quite sexy in this latest role, despite being a hot mess.
As well for Cedric the Entertainer. Cedric is usually a clown, but this time, he’s subdued. It fits him, though. He keeps the story moving with his Barry White-baritone narration.
Beyonce has also grown as an actress. When she first came onto the screen in Cadillac, midway through the movie, she seemed a little uncomfortable in the body suit she was obviously wearing; she walked kind of funny. But, once she got her groove, she became the brassy lady that Etta James is. I didn’t know she had it in her; and I’m glad she does. It made it easier to watch the film and I’ve never seen her so foul-mouthed.
I also have to mention the very funny Mos Def. Mos has now reached veteran status. He actually starred in MTV’s Carmen: A Hip Hopera, with Beyonce. My have they grown. Should Mos continue to have an eye for the big screen, I’m sure he will continue to go many places. He’s that good.
Playing the role of the huge and angry Howlin’ Wolf, Walker brings his scary eyes to the screen. He’s quite convincing. Although his part in the movie is small, he does make an impact in that he’s got the wolf part down pat.
Other actors of note are Emmanuelle Chriqui as Veretta Chess, Leonard’s wife, and Gabrielle Union as Geneva Wade, Muddy’s girlfriend who will stick by him no matter what.
If you can get past the foul-mouthed characters and occasional nudity, you will find a story about the lives of real people who saw fame and grabbed it. It’s more than just based on true events; it’s a cautionary tale for people who see fortune and fame as an end to their troubles.