The John C. Reilly movie WALK HARD made fun of the formulaic biopics we have seen in recent years. After all, with RAY and WALK THE LINE the storylines were so similar they seemed worthy of mockery. But in each case the movies were done in such detail and with such respect for their subject that even if the audience experienced déjà vu all over again, they still cared about the figure, and therefore cared about the film. And of course in each case, the performers did a great job as their characters. CADILLAC RECORDS has similar performances, particularly with Adrien Brody and Jeffrey Wright continuing their streak of great acting, but the film itself bites off way more than it can chew.
Adrien Brody stars as Leonard Chess, a record company executive out of Chicago who started Chess Records, the iconic label known for launching the careers of Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter (Columbus Short) and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles). The film starts with a dual focus on Muddy Waters beginning his career and Leo Chess beginning his record label, and as those two storylines converge, that dual approach makes sense. However, as the label grows bigger and each new artist is added to the story, each of them is given a plotline as well, and while it is important to give each of the characters their own personalities, too much depth into each one takes us away from our main characters, essentially turning the film into a collection of stories, rather than one coherent narrative. And the side stories aren’t bad: Little Walter’s dependence on alcohol and inability to deal with success; Howlin’ Wolf’s (Eamonn Walker) independence and insistence on not taking any handouts from Chess – who gave Cadillac’s to his talent throughout their employ; Etta James’ drug use and father issues, and Muddy’s philandering…and for good measure a side story of affections between Chess and James. But this is too much for the movie to handle.
In regards to the acting, we have come to expect such performances from Brody, whose name is always preceded by “Oscar winning actor,” and Wright’s diversity runs from Peoples Hernandez in SHAFT to the quiet intellectual operative in SYRIANA, and now to the heavy Southern drawl of Muddy Waters, but the surprise for me came in Beyone’s work as Etta James. Maybe after her work in AUSTIN POWERS: GOLDMEMBER and PINK PANTHER I really lowered my expectations, but she handles the emotional scenes in this with a measure of strength tempered with vulnerability that seems real for the character, which was a pleasant surprise. However, don’t believe any hype concerning her cover of “At Last” being better than the original. Etta owns that track. Best slow dance song ever.
The whole is not greater because of the sum of its parts. Oh, and on a fashion side note: Brody brings the same level of cool to the retro look he brought as the detective in HOLLYWOODLAND. And on a smoking side note: In both performances he smoked. Lesson here, kids – smoking is cool…or at least it was in the 50’s and 60’s.