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 November 12, 1955, Enchantment Under the Sea Dance in Hill Valley, California. And apparently the birth of rock ‘n’ roll has nothing to do with a time-traveling DeLorean. Instead, it has to do with multiple mid-fifties-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 Phil and 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 girls, 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 is it’s compass: 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. There’s also Columbus Short’s potently brash and self-destructive Little Walter; Eamonn Walker’s commandingly, animally ferocious Howlin’ Wolf; executive producer Beyoncé Knowles’ bewitching if Beyoncesque Etta James; and Cedric the Entertainer’s highly appealing if sometimes overcooked Willie Dixon, who says, near the end, “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. We all know that narrative abbreviations compromise authenticity, and that’s tolerable, but only to a point. Cadillac Records sometimes feels intrusively hurried and confined. (Just for starters, we get a whole lot of Leonard Chess but next to nothing of his brother Phil.)
So consider this. What if it 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 then the absentees might even take the stage as well.
Yes, what we need here is a greater sense of space, and of time. Anybody know how to rig up one of those Cadillacs with a flux capacitor?