Watching the scrappy, passionate Cadillac Records only a week after the wondrous Milk, I found myself musing: What if we tried to be kinder to the biopic? It's a genre that takes so much flak for being literal-minded, stodgy, and predictable. Yet in recent years, movies based on the real lives of public figures have also provided a place for superb work by actors (and sometimes directors as well). What if we regarded biopics in the same way we do jazz standards: a familiar, generic framework that each artist makes his or her own through improvisation? After all, no one asks why Ella Fitzgerald is singing that corny old "How High the Moon" again. We listen to what she does with the song.
Cadillac Records is a good place to start with this rethinking of the biopic, since it's all about what one group of seminal black American musicians did with popular song. The film isn't so much about the biography of any one person as it as about the life of a record label: Chess Records, the Chicago blues label owned by Polish immigrant Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), that launched the careers of Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Etta James, and other great "crossover" artists from the postwar years when blues begat rhythm and blues, which begat rock 'n' roll.
Sunday, December 7, 2008
Interesting review of Cadillac Records, the Chess Records bio pic, from Slate's Dana Stevens: