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KING BEE: Jeffrey Wright's Muddy Waters dominates 'Cadillac Records.'

High Note

'Cadillac Records' brings Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf together again

By Richard von Busack

IT IS way, way past time that this film was made, so Cadillac Records' problems—the lopsidedness and the wonky chronology—seem immaterial. Director Darnell Martin has a splendid cast for this look at the history of Chess Records. Mos Def's invigoratingly droll Chuck Berry is irresistible. And the British actor Eamonn Walker's Howlin' Wolf is a spine-chilling presence. What's missing is the more soulful Wolf; we see him do "Smokestack Lightning," but we don't get to see the moaning lover of "Who's Been Talking?" Ultimately, the great Wolf works as a symbolic character; he is shrewd enough to spot the paternalism that often made the Chess "family" uncomfortably similar to the old sharecropping system. My back went up as soon as narrator Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer) said that here was the story of two men, and we realized that he didn't mean Muddy and the Wolf but rather Muddy and the striving immigrant Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody). Chess' accomplishments ought to be remembered, but there were dozens of perceptive (not to say sharky) white men in the music business, and there was only one Muddy Waters. Jeffrey Wright plays Muddy as a green Mississippi country boy who gets a lesson in guitar electrification by a Chicago girl named Geneva (Gabrielle Union). They marry. She sticks with him, while this promiscuous master musician mentors a troubled harmonica player named Little Walter (Columbus Short).For all its multiple pleasures, Cadillac Records isn't just something you can file under cinematic Americana. It never forgets the racism, and it memorializes the murderous competition between bluesmen. Through montages of couples making love to the music, Martin depicts the idea of the blues as mingling: not just of the races but of art and commerce. And the intense Chess wants a piece of the action, in both the financial and the sexual senses. This is complex ambiguity for a biopic, and it gets more complex when Beyoncé's Etta James arrives. Dazed after a heroin overdose, James gets into a clinch with the very-married Len; they're like lovers but also very much (and creepily) boss and employee, or father and daughter. Beyoncé has never been better than she is when depicting the bruised infantilism of Etta. She's not quite tough enough, however, for the crockery-throwing scene. The problem with divas in movies is they always act like divas; the pose shows.

What is especially good in Cadillac Records is Wright. His underplaying is a marvel; and he has the sotto voce suaveness of a man who rigidly patrols the boundaries in his personal life. But this Waters is not a movie superman; there's graceful humor in scenes of Muddy being baffled by Chuck Berry on American Bandstand, never quite grasping the '60s lunacy about to break over the world. Far less can Waters get his mind around the British Invasion. Jagger, Zeppelin, Clapton and the rest gave white teenagers a filter through which to imbibe their own culture. Biopics are part of that filtration system; if Cadillac Records is a hit, it ought to function as a necessary refreshment to the nation's memory about what's out there waiting in the archives.

Movie Times CADILLAC RECORDS (R; 109 min.), directed and written by Darnell Martin, photographed by Anastas N. Michos and starring Jeffrey Wright, Beyoncé Knowles and Adrien Brody, opens Dec. 5.

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