- If you weren't around for Chuck Berry in his prime, Mos Def will do.
*Cadillac Records (R)
Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
So apparently, Chuck Berry did not get his sound from hearing Marty McFly sub in on guitar for Berry's injured cousin Marvin at the Nov. 12, 1955, "Enchantment Under the Sea Dance" in Hill Valley, Calif. And apparently the birth of rock 'n roll has nothing to do with a time-traveling DeLorean, but instead with multiple vintage Cadillacs.
I know. I, too, am confused and frightened. Damn you, Back to the Future. I trusted you. But thank you, Cadillac Records, for setting me straight.
Sometimes what it takes is a Chess Records ensemble-biopic origin myth, a tale of the momentous, messed-up musical family assembled by Leonard Chess, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Chuck Berry, Howlin' Wolf, Etta James and Willie Dixon, among others, on the south side of Chicago halfway through the last century. And that's just what writer-director Darnell Martin has provided.
Still, I must say, I want more. Especially with Mos Def playing Berry a weird, inspired choice. It's true that he seems, well, nicer, than the actual man, but just look at him go: There's all that duck-walking showmanship, that unabashed appetite for women, that indignation at having his music ripped off by the Beach Boys all brought across with subtle, irreverent hilarity. And Berry's not even the main character.
Nobody is, really, although Jeffrey Wright's Muddy Waters, a mesmerizing marvel of coiled reticence, gives the film its foundation. And Adrien Brody's Leonard Chess, a Polish-Jewish immigrant playing at being the boss of African-American artists in a segregated age supporting them, exploiting them, supplying them with all those Cadillacs is its compass. There's also Columbus Short's potently brash and self-destructive Little Walter; Eamonn Walker's commandingly ferocious Howlin' Wolf; executive producer Beyonc Knowles' bewitching if Beyonc-esque Etta James; and Cedric the Entertainer's highly appealing if sometimes overcooked Willie Dixon.
Near the end, Dixon says, "We made the kind of music that can grow into anything," because it is he who has the unfortunate task of summary narration. And I only say unfortunate because there has to be so much summary, and we all know that narrative abbreviations compromise authenticity.
So what if Cadillac Records had been a miniseries instead of a movie? And I don't mean just some lame knockoff with third-rate talent wiling away the off hours on an obscure cable network. No, I'm talking about a full-blown arrangement, with commensurate budget and production values, the same phenomenal cast, free-range rights to all the essential music (well, this is a fantasy, after all), and the liberty to really get into it to vamp and shred and call and respond.
Then it might feel like a proper epic. Then those main players might get the solo time they all deserve something more than the standard movie-bio highlight moments of inspiration, opportunity, fortune, misfortune, drugs, sex, vanity, violence and tragic too-early death and the absentees might even take the stage as well.
Cadillac Records is rousing, but it feels hurried and confined as a film. What we need is a sense of space, and of time. Can we get one of those Cadillacs with a flux capacitor?