Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Chess game with music

"Cadillac Records" chronicles the history of Chess Records, a Chicago-based label that introduced such artists as Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Etta James and Chuck Berry. "Cadillac Records'' is less a big-screen biography of Chess Records, which reached in apex in the late '50s and early '60s, than a bio-pic about a couple of decades of American popular culture. The Chess era, if that's not too grandiose a term, began with the segregated sounds of so-called "race music" and moved to the days when artists such as James and Berry staged a rhythm and blues crossover. The whole business was presided over by Leonard Chess, played here by Adrien Brody.

Director Darnell Martin ("I Like It Like That") might not have the sharpest eye in the business, but whoever assembled the soundtrack has a good ear, and the movie does capture the rough-and-tumble of a time when the breezes of change were beginning to acquire whirlwind force. Leonard Chess, who co-founded Chess Records with a brother who's not shown in the film, is nicely rendered by Brody, who's playing a character we can't quite figure out. Maybe that's because Chess was a man of many faces, an opportunistic and shrewd businessman who also loved music. Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) seems to regard Chess as a bit of a hustler. Waters seems fond of Chess, but can't totally shake the feeling that the impresario is a bit of a music pimp who lives a lot better than the singers who work for him.

A variety of other social issues are boldly presented as the movie builds around two relationships: one between Chess and Waters, the other between Chess and James (Beyonce Knowles). Wright, who recently played Colin Powell in Oliver Stone's "W.," captures Waters' puffy-cheeked charm, sly candor and musical confidence. At one point, Waters hooks up with harmonica player Little Walter (a volatile Columbus Short), a man with whom he had a creatively productive but sometimes troubled relationship. About midway through, Waters becomes a second-tier star at Chess, surpassed by the likes of James and Chuck Berry, played with crafty humor by Mos Def. Waters hard-drivin', broken-hearted blues never quite got him off a circuit composed of radio stations and clubs that catered mainly to African-Americans.

According to the movie, Chess fell for James, who for a time slipped into the junkie/singer role. I don't know if Knowles, who's listed as the movie's executive producer, had a hand in casting herself, but if she did, she made the right move. Her James is full of life, pain and sass. Knowles gives a kicking and screaming beauty of a performance that puts her work in "Dreamgirls" to shame. Eamonn Walker also scores as singer Howlin' Wolf, a force that even the wily Chess couldn't harness.

The movie should bring back memories for those who lived during the period, even if they can't forget that they're watching a period piece. The performances add urgency, and "Cadillac Records" -- a nickname stemming from Chess' habit of giving his singers new Cadillacs -- captures a moment when music history still could be made out of a converted storefront on Chicago's South Side.

Alan Rickman tries to pronounce every syllable he can find in "Nobel Son," a tricky, over-stylized thriller about an SOB chemist (Rickman) who wins the Nobel Prize and learns that his son (Bryan Greenberg) has been kidnapped by a nut-job (Sean Hatosy) who likes to chop off people's thumbs. The movie practically screams with look-at-me touches, which would have been fine had there been anything worth looking at. To say more is to waste words. The plot has many twists, but none feel particularly surprising.

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