06 July 2009

"Cadillac Records" Brings Back Memories

We watched the movie Cadillac Records last night. I know, I know, the movie came out months ago, but it was finally on cable, so we watched it at home - where else can you take four people to the movies for only $4.99? With two teenagers on the cusp of adulthood and two "old folks", there was the usually inter-generational brouhaha - the teenagers had to keep shushing S. and I all night long.

Jeffery Wright resembles Muddy Waters about as much as I look like Denzel Washington, but whether it was the way Wright had his cheeks puffed out, or how he grunted through his teeth when he spoke, he did that thing that good actors can do to make you believe they are the real thing.

Maybe that means Cedric The Entertainer can't act, because no matter what role I see him in, he's always still Cedric to me. He didn't have much screen time, so after awhile you could go with the fiction that he was supposed to be songwriter Willie Dixon.

But the cat who played Howlin' Wolf, Eamonn Walker - now he looked just like the real Wolf, if you had cut off his legs - the real Howlin' Wolf was a great big man, six feet six or six feet eight, but since most people don't know that, I'll give the casting director a pat on the back for selecting such a compelling supporting actor.

I had to work hard not to laugh out loud during the movie - not because of the acting, which was pretty good, or the storyline, which was written in the familiar rags-to-riches music biopic style, but because I had grown up with all the songs and all the stories.

My father used to talk about Muddy Waters like people talk about Michael Jackson. If you asked him who was singing one of the wailing blues records he played, he say, "boy, that's Muddy Waters. Muddy Waa-ters." The second "Muddy Waa-ters" was usually uttered reverentially, as if saying his name alone brought back memories. Then my father's mouth would drop down at the corners, like Jeffery Wright's did in the movie, the same way the real Muddy Waters mouth probably dropped sometimes when he was sitting in Chicago remembering those fields back in Mississippi, and my father would slowly shake his head from side to side as that gravely voice wailed atop the guitar notes out of the big, wooden Maganavox stereo console in our living room.

So when Chuck Berry, played by Mos Def, came on screen and did his rock and roll moves with his country twang and his guitar swaying, I turned to S., after checking to make sure the Resident Diva wasn't watching me, and said sotto voce "Elvis needs to give all that money back." It was the same line my parents and their friends had said over and over for years while I was growing up, but I'd never seen what they had actually lived through, when the real Chuck Berry was on their radios back in the fifties, until I saw this movie.

I'm not mad at the producers for putting Beyonce in the movie - she was a natural choice for Etta James, all the way down to the generous padded ham hocks that helped make the real Etta James famous. But I think it took them away from delving deeper into Muddy Waters character at a time when we needed to know more about who he was inside. As good as Beyonce looked in those skin tight dresses, I still felt they would have had a stronger movie if it had focused more on Muddy's internal struggles as an aging, fading artist.

After a couple of dramatic scenes nearing the end, which prompted the noise police to double shush us, we were able to make it to the end without further incident.

The thing about movies like these that is interesting, given the juxtaposition our viewing of this particular movie with the surreal events swirling around us these last few days with celebrity deaths, is how central depravities and addictions and psychological horrors are to the lives of many who inhabit the limelight. You can't make a movie of Ike and Tina Turner, or Ray Charles, or James Brown, without including them, or else you don't have a movie.

So why, when celebrities are alive, do we insist on making them one dimensional? Would you watch a movie about Steve McNair that only included the Disney moments he shared with his family? Would you watch a movie about Michael Jackson that left out his alleged exploits at Neverland Ranch?

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