Pervenia - wrote on 12/09/08
By Pervenia P. Brown
Is Cadillac Records Oscar material? For certain actors—yes.
In a film about Chess Records and its recording artists, I expected its cast to embody the persona of legendary artists’ who made groundbreaking strides and carved out a place for themselves in the music industry. How skillfully did the cast exemplify characteristics of their iconic personalities?
Without a doubt, Columbus Short is a natural as Little Walter. Short threw himself wholeheartedly into his role. Not only did he connect with the psychological aspects of his character, Short exemplified, with such distinctness, a man and a musician struggling with a lifetime of inner demons. And, his confrontation with the police reveals that struggle. Short gave a powerful performance that was simply flawless.
Similarly dramatic is Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters. Seeing Muddy Waters get his start and how “race” records were recorded was informative, as well as entertaining. Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) was the physical conscience of Muddy Waters, screaming to come forth and show his bully boss, Leonard Chess, (and himself) the real man inside. But Muddy never mustered up the courage to do it; living instead as a powerless punk.
Leonard Chess’s (Adrian Brody) constant scouting for new artists made Chuck Berry (Mos Def) an interesting début in the film. Mos Def was energetic in this role and a thrill to watch. I was amazed at his range as an actor. He embraced Chuck Berry’s life as if it were his very own.
The film, however, focuses too much on the tomcatting of these musicians and the powerlessness of the women in their lives. Geneva Wade (Gabrielle Union) and Revette Chess (Emmanuelle Chriqui) were walk-all-over-me doormats; perpetually dissatisfied with the men in their lives, but too emotionally weak to leave them.
Overall, Cadillac Records was good, but a bit overrated. While Beyoncé represented Etta James in the scope of the great R&B singer, she lacked the depth to connect with the heroin addict she intended to portray. Missing, was the pain and struggle of Etta James as a heroin addict. We only saw the remnants of blame and anger she internalized as a result of her mother’s loose ways and her father’s rejection.
For Beyoncé to shine in the role of Etta James, we needed to see how she became a heroin addict. Instead, the film gave a very slight glimpse into her life. For example, when Etta James missed a couple of rehearsals, we were thrust into a large empty house with Etta sprawled on the carpet, scantily clad. We never saw the valuable possessions she lost or how she came to this ill-fated moment, so the scene lost its intended effect. And, because we never actually see heroin wreak havoc on Etta James’s life, makes Beyoncé appear too durable for this role.
Can Beyoncé win an Oscar for her role in Cadillac Records? Her belated appearance and limited face time in the film may not be enough. During the first half of the film, one cannot help but wonder, “Where is Etta James?”
Let me interject here, I am one of Beyoncé’s biggest fans. And, I was so hoping that the role as Etta James would provide an opportunity for her to win an Oscar, but I was disappointed.
The fact that Cadillac Records' director, Darnell Martin, did not develop Etta James’s character more fully, prevented Beyoncé from making an extended appearance in the film. This might be too narrow a window for Beyoncé to display an Oscar-winning performance.