Cadillac Records

Posted on December 4, 2008 at 5:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language and some sexuality
Profanity: Very strong language including crude sexual references and racist epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Guns, brutal beating, drug overdose
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 5, 2008

In the words of Etta James, at last.

At last, albeit imperfectly, the extraordinary story of the rise and fall of Chess Records has been given the loving attention it deserves. Magnificent performances and soul-shaking music make up for some narrative stumbles and dubious fictions in this, the higher profile of two films this year about the legendary Chicago record label.

Adrian Brody plays Leonard Chess, a Jewish immigrant who was one of the first to record and market the work of black artists in the 1950s, when it was still called “race music.” With talent like Mississippi Delta blues player Muddy Waters, harmonica virtuoso Little Walter, powerhouse vocalist Howlin’ Wolf, the silky soul chanteuse Etta James, and proto-rocker Chuck Berry, Chess recordings established the foundation for “race music” to become blues, then rhythm and blues, and then rock and roll.

That is a lot to get through in one movie, and if at times it descends into VH1 “Behind the Music”-isms, muddled chronology (the Rolling Stones show up before the early Elvis), and distortions of fact, it is understandable. The movie touches on some of the difficult issues of race and gender without much depth, as when the performers, limited by lack of education and the bigotry of the day, begin to resent the paternalism — and sloppy bookkeeping — of Chess. Generations of oppression and naivete about business make them suspicious that he is keeping too much of their money. And dramatically it falls victim to what I call the “and then” syndrome, piling events on top of each other without a strong narrative arc.

Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters, Gabrielle Union as his significant other Geneva, and Mos Def as Berry are outstanding as always; they are among the finest actors and most mesmerizing performers in Hollywood. Columbus Short, an appealing presence in “Stomp the Yard” and “This Christmas” is a revelation as Little Walter. And Beyonce Knowles (who also produced) gives James a gritty authenticity this glossy pop star has not reached before. What matters here is the characters and the music and in both categories the performances really deliver.

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Based on a true story Biography Drama Movies -- format Musical

Interview: John Sayles of “Honeydripper”

Posted on January 21, 2008 at 8:00 am

honeydripper2.jpg Writer-director-editor-actor John Sayles has made some of the most consistently literate, subtle, and engaging films of the last three decades, including The Secret of Roan Inish, Lone Star, Casa de los Babys, Passion Fish, and Eight Men Out. I spoke to him about his new movie, “Honeydripper,” the story of Tyrone (Danny Glover), who has a bar in 1950 Harmony, Alabama. His only hope for keeping it going is an appearance by recording star Guitar Sam. When Sam does not show up, Tyrone substitutes a young performer named Sonny, counting on the fact that no one in Harmony has any idea what Guitar Sam looks like.
Would you say there is one theme in your movies, one idea that you like to explore?
The ones that are set in the US, a lot of them are about that tension between the American dream, what we think of as our ideal, and the reality. I like to show people who think they have nothing to do with each other listening to each other. Music is the way people pay attention to each other first, listening to and borrowing from each other’s music, before they are willing to share ideas.
Your last few films have been contemporary. What is different about doing a film set in another time?
Period films are more fun for the art dept. They read a lot of books and look at a lot of pictures, looking at cars, guitars, everything that appears in the film. I am thinking through the characters, how did they think back then, what did they accept, what did they question. This takes place in 1950, before the media started calling it the Civil Rights Movement. Southern towns were not on the alert yet that there was going to be a movement. They were still saying, “We thought all our colored people were happy.” You have to get yourself back into that head. I read autobiographies and biographies, to just get the vibe of the time. It’s within my lifetime, but we’re talking to people who are younger. Our audience is adults who were born years after Martin Luther King was assassinated. He’s somebody on the history channel to them and they do not have that personal experience of how radical he was.
For me the heaviest line in the movie is when the sheriff says “Take your hat off,” not because he’s the sheriff, it’s not a question of his legal authority. It is just because he is white. Unlearning what we know, every character you have to kind of work that equation in. The political activist in the film is the Pullman porter . They were the guys who got around and delivered the message. They had the most radical union. That was the era of A. Philip Randolph.


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