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Spinning Blues Into Lies

First, a key spoiler: Cadillac Records is not the story of Chess Records, the blues label started in Chicago in 1950 by brothers Leonard and Phil Chess that featured among its stable of artists Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Etta James, plus many others who birthed rock 'n' roll. The movie is certainly being marketed as a Chess tell-all; the soundtrack, due December 5, counts among its offerings Chess standards recut by the film's actors, including Jeffrey Wright's woefully slight version of Muddy Waters' "Hoochie Coochie Man," Mos Def's coy, sly take on Chuck Berry's "No Particular Place to Go," and three tracks by Beyoncé Knowles, whose purr never comes close to approximating Etta James' growl.

But in this version of the tale — told in flashback, with overwrought narration provided by Cedric the Entertainer as Chess producer, session musician, and house songwriter Willie Dixon — there is no Phil Chess, only Leonard, played by an actor (Adrien Brody), who, with his anachronistically tousled hair and Forever Fonzie wardrobe, looks as much like Leonard Chess as he does, well, Howlin' Wolf. In fact, Phil, who was also left out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame proceedings upon Leonard's induction as a pioneer in 1987, is never mentioned at all. (He is, however, a central player in Jerry Zaks' Who Do You Love, the other Chess bio that had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.) There's no Bo Diddley either, a woeful oversight for a film in need of his hubris and humor. Still, the parade of famous faces playing famous faces overstuffs the movie with subjects deserving of features but instead treated as footnotes. (Berry has already served as the subject of one of the better rockumentaries: Taylor Hackford's 1987 Chuck Berry Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll.) It's all too much and not enough; either make the epic the story deserves or don't bother.

Most gallingly, for a film "based on a true story," there doesn't seem to be a single fact contained within writer/director Darnell Martin's ham-fisted fiction, which renders prerock musical history as yet another downer soap opera bloated with smack and sex and premature corpses as though that's all that defined the period and the people. For all its copious flaws, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story perfectly nailed the trajectory of every single rockudrama that has tarnished a legend's legend — the big bang turned sad whimper.

Cadillac Records begins with Dixon laying the foundation of the story, introducing us to "one white boy from Chicago" (Chess, first seen midcoitus) and "one sharecropper from Mississippi" (Waters, tilling the soil). Chess, a junkyard owner, dreams of opening a nightclub, which he does: the Macomba Lounge. Waters, recorded one day in the field by Alan Lomax (Tony Bentley), reckons he's got a future in the Big City and treads the tracks till he reaches Chicago. Eventually, the two men meet — during a never-happened brawl at the Macomba, instigated by hell-raising harp player Little Walter (Columbus Short) — and form a partnership, then a friendship.

In time, Chess begins assembling his pieces: Howlin' Wolf, played with almost cartoonish ferocity by Eamonn Walker; Dixon, who here comes off as nothing more than a sideman; Chuck Berry, rendered as a savvy country boy who liked to show gals his ding-a-ling in the back seat of his car; and James, who already had a career before Chess signed the tormented torch singer in 1960, not that you'd know it here. Also along for the ride are Chess and Waters' women, Revetta (Entourage's Emmanuelle Chriqui) and Geneva (Gabrielle Union), respectively, who do little other than quietly frown and tolerate their husbands' myriad dalliances.

The story is too fragmented to decipher — a sloppily arranged sequence of sketches that's like a who's who without the why. Martin tells the story elliptically, with the occasional bold proclamation ("I don't know what the fuck it is," Chess says of Waters' music, "but I'm recording it!") inserted here and there to remind us that these small stars are, in fact, portraying larger-than-life musicians whose work would influence generations. But nothing has an impact or leaves a mark, least of all the songs, watered down by actors doing miniature impersonations of giants. No wonder Martin doesn't let the audience hear more than snatches of tunes — save for Knowles' three extended numbers, clearly intended to sell the soundtrack. They're faint echoes of classics, soulless and gutless.

Like most of her tone-deaf predecessors, Martin feels the need to make the truth more entertaining and ends up desecrating the history books. (A far better place to start would be Nadine Cohodas' 2001 book, Spinning Blues Into Gold, about the Chess Brothers — yes, both of them.) The alterations are distracting and head-scratching and ultimately dismissive, to the point that Wright's Muddy Waters is reduced to a mere spectator in his own story, just some guy who hangs around the Chess studios to glower at Howlin' Wolf and panhandle Chess for money. Meanwhile, the film barely touches upon Chess' questionable business dealings that left these pioneers all but broke, save for the brand-new Cadillacs Chess would buy his artists upon their topping of the pops.

Fabrications in the name of movie myth-making are, of course, to be expected from a genre that demands condensing lives into a handful of defining episodes; all biopics reduce and trivialize. But so egregious are the deficiencies and distortions here — in this universe, the Rolling Stones came to the United States and the Beach Boys ripped off Chuck Berry long before anyone had ever heard of Elvis Presley — that it's almost impossible to discern whether there's anything decent about the moviemaking itself. With everything so wrong, how can there be anything right about Cadillac Records?

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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