Monday, September 28, 2009

Day 21 (Round IV) "In the trenches": Hollywood blues edition

Next up in the Netflix queue: Cadillac Records.

I so wanted this movie to be, if not good, at least not actively bad. This is some of my favorite music in the world and some of the most admirable people I've ever heard of, who I first encountered on record, and in the medium of my hero Peter Guralnick's books (Feel Like Goin' Home and Lost Highways, and paralleled by his masterpiece Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm & Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom). I already knew, at 18, how extraordinary these people what: what titanic, stronger than life-and-death, elemental, brilliant, courageous, creative personalities they were. I met Muddy at the Chicago Blues Fest in the winter of 1978, and even though I was 7 inches taller, I felt small, shaking his hand, which still, after 40 years, had all the sharecropper's calluses. And as I watched him jitterbug with the white boys in his band, Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin (guitar) and harpist Jerry Portnoy, I realized that there was a lifetime of wisdom that this music could teach me.

Unfortunately, we aren't going to get it from this movie. There is more truth about the blues in three minutes of Son House singing "Death Letter Blues" on German television than there is in this entire film. And, despite the focus and selflessness of Geoffrey Wright's Muddy Waters, the feral intensity of Eamonn Walker's Howlin' Wolf (easily the most compelling portrait in the film), the professionalism of Adrien Brody's Leonard Chess, this is not the story of Chess Records or of the extraordinary artists and people who made it happen.

And it's because the people who were empowered to set the shape, story, and production values of this movie are a product of Hollywood, which by definition insulates people from reality and from a sense of the real greatness of this music and musicians. No matter how well-meaning either writer/director Darnell Martin or "executive producer" Beyonce Knowles might consider themselves to be, no matter how much they may gush about the "genius" of the actual actors in the film, or the "genius" of the artists they are portraying, they are fundamentally shaped by Hollywood story values, which simply refuses to believe that there could be any truer, realler or more valuable story than those seen through the Hollywood lens.

People in Hollywood, no matter their background, simply cannot grasp what hard life is actually like: working stoop labor, playing in bars where guns and knives are part of the work environment, being ripped-off because you're poor or your skin is the wrong color and you have no recourse. They cannot grasp that those stories are the real stories, the valuable stories, the stories that speak to real peoples' actual lives.

The film suffers from all the problems of a Hollywood star vehicle "produced" by its star. It doesn't matter how much Beyonce gushes about how much she has to learn from the great actors she's working with: the distortion of the actual history here reveals not only her fundamental inability to shift the focus from herself (and no matter what you say, neither Etta James nor Len Chess is the heart of the Chess story), but also her fundamental inability to see where the actual story is, or the vastly greater power, charisma, and excitement that could be found in that story.

The heart of the Chess Records story is the courage, focus, imagination, and flat-out goddamned hard work of the people who fought for decades to get their music heard. The heart of this story is Muddy, and Wolf, and Walter, and, yes, Willie Dixon, and Sammy Lay, and Hubert, and Pat Hare, and, yes, Leonard and Phil Chess. The heart of the story--and precisely that portion these Hollywood assholes can't see the woods for the trees--is the love story between all of these people, and the music that resulted.

The strong points:

Geoffrey Wright, as always and ever disappearing into his character, capturing Muddy's control, force of character, and wary resilience;

Eamonn Walker's remarkable, feral Howlin' Wolf, in which he captures not only Wolf's sheer physical force and mannerisms, but also the tamped-down rage of the abandoned child inside him, and much-smarter-than-Muddy grasp of the reality of the Chess/Muddy relationship. The best scene in the movie is the first meeting between Muddy, Wolf, and Len Chess, when Wolf, clad in ragged overalls and driving a beat-up rusted-out pickup, turns down an advance from Len Chess, and points out to Muddy that his ride is paid for. Best line, Wolf speaking to Muddy: "He's a white man; you a black man..Course he's gon' make the money. You from Mississippi, ain't you? I'da thought youda known that."

The portrait of folklorist Alan Lomax, who first recorded Muddy in '41, which at least reveals the fundamental decency and excitement Lomax exhibited in his belief regarding the power of the music he was "discovering." Lomax was a prick and an opportunist with an astonishing inability to reflect upon himself, or how his artists saw him, but there is no denying the enormous improvement he made in the lives of many of his artists. And extra credit to the film-makers for including the too-often neglected John W Work, without whose service as intermediary much of Lomax's Deep South collecting would never have occurred.

Mos' Def, an incredible, intuitive, unself-conscious comic actor (he was fantastic in Lackawanna Blues, another movie that suffered dreadfully via the infliction of star power--in that case, of Halle Berry--upon a fundamentally sound story), whose Chuck Berry may or may not be grounded in much biographical fact, but which captures the humor, smartassed self-confidence, and insouciant brilliance of his instinctive melding of blues, country, and rockabilly.

The weak links?

The obviously tacked-on narration by Cedric the Entertainer as Willie Dixon. Fundamental warning bell: any time a movie uses an extended voice-over narration by a minor character in order to catch up on the big gobs of narrative which they can't seem to portray on screen--or, even worse, to tell the audience how they are supposed to interpret the Really Big Questions which the movie claims to be addressing but which the film-makers evidently don't trust themselves to have conveyed.

The triteness of the Little Walter portrait. Not Columbus Short's fault--he makes the most of the thin gruel he's given--but the picture of the doomed, child-man genius, mistreated in his youth and a gun-toting, cop-baiting loose cannon as a man, is out of the most tired "VH1-Behind the Music" playbooks.

And, let's face it, the glibness of Beyonce's Etta James. There's a story I have from the General, who's far more knowledgeable about film than I, which alleges that Beyonce had never heard Etta sing when they started the film.

As my friend the General said: that's not Beyonce's fault. But it is the fault of Walker, not only the director but the writer of the film--who's going to rewrite history in order to cook up some apocryphal affair between Len Chess and Etta James as the focus of her soft-focus lip-service-only star-vehicle clusterfuck of a pseudo-"history"--and who doesn't even get that maybe Etta's singing might have had something to teach Beyonce. Beyonce obviously didn't get it. And her singing shows it.

There is probably more truth in three minutes of Etta singing "At Last," in the twilight of her career, missing a leg to diabetes, maybe 100 pounds overweight, than in any music Beyonce has ever been involved with. And damned sure more truth in that singing than there is in this movie.

Maybe the gut truth of this movie is conveyed in the first of the anonymized user comments that comes up in an imdb search: "This is mostly fiction and an insult to the artists and the history of Chess Records."

The fact is: this is not a movie about black Hollywood redressing the distorted American popular music history that left black geniuses out of the history books--and the royalties statements. It's a movie, once more, which is about rich Hollywood types ripping off the memories, and the genius, of artists who Hollywood will never, would never, comprehend.


I'll go back to Muddy, that cold winter of '78. And Wolf, keeping his band on the road to help his sidemen pay their rent, from VA-Administration dialysis machine to machine. To Son House, singing "John the Revelator."



Fuck Beyonce. Fuck Hollywood.

Son House:

This is "where the soul of man never dies."

Thank you, Muddy. Thank you, Wolf. Thank you, Etta. Thank you, Walter.

Thank you, Len and Phil.

We are all in your debt.


Banjosnake said...

From the latest "Men's Journal" profile of Viggo Mortensen, a quote from director David Cronenberg: "He really understands that anonymity is a valuable thing for an artist. If you are always being observed, and your presence changes everyone's behavior, you lose that wonderful ability to observe things in their natural state. That's why huge stars, surrounded by sycophants and hangers-on, end up with a distorted worldview. They never see what's real anymore."
In many ways, this movies was BETER than I, a serious doubter, thought it would be... but every issue you point out is laser-true.

Christopher said...

I'm convinced that being part of Hollywood's "star-making machinery" drives people insane.

the dearly deported said...

Yes, all true, thought the same things when I watched it a few months ago. Performances were good/great by some of the actors, but the "story" was exactly that, a story.

While it saddens me that people that don't know anything about Chess probably still no little to nothing about it, seeing Mud, Wolf, & Walter onscreen was nice. Mud & Walter might have even gone along, for the right price, Wolf would have growled something fierce & scared them Hollywood jokers to death, though. No comment on Beyonce.

CJS said...

You got a point about Wolf. He was the toughest of the tough, that one. No wonder Sam admired him so much.