RIORI Presents Installment #172: Kasi Lemmons’ “Talk To Me” (2007)



The Players…

Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cedric The Entertainer, Taraji P Henson, Mike Epps, Vondie Curtis Hall and Martin Sheen.


The Basics…

Besides the free three hots and a cot, the best thing about being in prison is you are free to speak your mind. No one will listen. No one will listen, of course unless you cause a scene. Start a ruckus. Make you realize that you are indeed imprisoned. Then there might come some existential frisson and screaming ensues.

Frisson is all prisoner DJ Petey knows, and he’s rough and ready to remind his fellow listening audience/inmates that all is not well in the nation’s capital. Or the country, for that matter. For Petey there are always matters of injustice to address, as well as inject James Brown into the echoing corridors to appreciative lifers.

But on a very rare, if not one-time occasion, Petey’s broadcasts leak beyond the prison walls. Or rather, just the right kind of audience tunes in at the right time.

One from The Outside.


The Foreword…

Hey, welcome back. Glad you could make it.

It took a tad longer than expected, but Volume One of RIORI has been all revisited, revised, updated and forgotten about. We all know it’s bad to dwell on past regrets, but I regret being such a tool years back and there was my way to atone to my loyal readers. Thanks and you’re welcome. It was such a load off my spine.

In retrospect, I was pleasantly surprised at a lot of that rough hackwork. Those very early entries were ostensibly written as movie critiques weren’t all bad. Some were whisky saturated screeds against Hollywood corporate agitprop. Others were mean diatribes. A few were right on base, perhaps then a sign of better things to come. Hell, some even were spelled correctly. Or I just got lucky. Or not. So anyway here we are, back on course to tackle some potential new threats on the mediocre movie horizon. Let’s set our sights on the next Michael Bay project (I hear Bad Boys 3 is right around the corner, and now we’re being lured by Kevin Hart. Scramble the jets!).

But before we go any further, some notes are in order. First, I’ve done away with all that “volume” crap. I only started dragging that line to troll possible subs to sign on thinking I had multiple feeds elsewhere. Of course it didn’t work. It would help if I had multiple feeds. Yeah. Sorry. Didn’t fool me, either. I have the non-comment feed to show for my little subterfuge. And I still pray every night, kids for the blog fairy to come and sweep me off to BloggieLand on gossamer WiFi.

Sigh. A man can dream, right?

Secondly, there is this practice in the comic book industry (lately) that when a new team tackles a long-running series (EG: Spider-Man, X-Men, My Little Pony, etc) they start counting all over again. It’s not issue #26, it’s #1 again. Again. This is a transparent ruse to coerce prospective buyers with the lure of a “new #1.” Number one issues are still quite prized, despite the despotic fandom comic collecting creates amongst like minds, concrete and just plain daffy. Namely, it’s a gimmick that works for new sales and irks the Cheetos-addled. Publishers are all about the bottom line, but comic collecting is still a niche market despite what Disney commands, and f*cking the noble history of our noble heroes quite rankles the geek squad nobly.

The remedy? “Legacy numbering.” About a year or so back, the team behind the most recent volume of The Amazing Spider-Man ran their course. Over ten years they penned the ups and downs of everyone’s fave web-head, and eventually looked for greater peaks to scale. After said decade the writers and artists passed the torch; in specific their run ended with Amazing Spider-Man #801. The new crew began not with #802 but a new #1. It was emblazoned on their first ish…with a byline: Legacy 802. Get it? This run at RIORI was the centennial, but screw any more trolling with quantity over quality. Hell, it might actually cage me a few more new subs. In other words, clean slate. Fair dinkum. Reset your calendars and synch those smartwatches.

Here we are at installment proper #172, and we’re gonna keep it lean and extra mean from now on. Everything has been legacied. No more back issues to collect. Time to get roasting and hope I’m pleasantly proven wrong again. Again. Thanks again for tuning in!

Now where was I? Oh yeah…


The Rant…

I’m not sure if I ever mentioned these stories before (I probably have) but rest assured it is very relevant regarding this week’s movie. Appropriately enough, it’s all about being on the air. The radio, that is. Listen up.

If you think about it, radio has been the free social media landscape before stuff like Facebook, Instagram and even WordPress existed. Radio also happens to be the best, and the Internet has been only aping AM/FM broadcasts since MySpace crept out from under its bits and bytes (MySpace still exists, BTW. Fancy that) is spirit. Our free social media can be the Fresh Kills Landfill online for all to dump in, but I’ve learned that radio lacks a soft white underbelly unlike its online peers. Why?

Maturity. If you wanna get technical radio transmissions are as old as the Universe, and humanity has only learned to harness the airwaves for only a little more than 100 years, and its friend count has never been tallied. Never had to. Radio has been just…there. Spreading news, insight and music from Cape Town to Columbus. For the most part it’s free, cheap and green. And often taken so far for granted its like it never was there. I think Queen wrote a song about that, which inspired a young Steffie Germanotta to pick up a mic. All we hear is…you know the rest.

Wanna know how yours truly first picked up the mic? Too bad. My blog, my rules. Now learn to appreciate the subtle yet convincing grip does duck tape have around wrists and under arms of a Stryker chair. Miss Quinzel? You may dance for me now.

Where was I? Right. Maturity. I speak from experience. In truth, a lot of the radio jive I’m gonna talk about from experience. Now. Here comes the story I think I may have told before but is still relevant to this weeks installment. I was once a radio programmer for our market’s local community radio station. WDIY 88.1 FM, the Valley’s community public radio station. Many choices, real voices. That was us. Is. Still is. WDIY just celebrated in 25th anniversary, and that is quite the triumph in small market, low metro coverage. Consider the MySpace ribbing earlier.

For five years, 2005 to 2009 I was on air, hosting the drive time, AAA music show. I was “Your Friend In The Blend.” “The Blend” was on every weekday, 1 to 4 PM, and I held the crucial Friday slot. I say crucial because to be on air Monday morning or Friday evening is akin to how a good play (or movie) should pan out: if you got a solid opening and a memorable ending, it was worth the time. The rest is just filler. Good filler, mind you, but most folks drive cars and most cars have radio and most folks have jobs and most folks commute to work on Monday to start the slog and speed home on Friday and in-between the radio might be something to tune into for news/music on the go. Stuff like that. My seat also meant some pressure. Gentle pressure mind you. Moreover there was “performance anxiety.” Say and play what sticks and the rest is gravy. And no road-rager will wrap their Benz around a telephone pole, ejecting that iPhone like a shotput. Shoulda stayed tuned in.

Radio may be mature, but it sure takes a lot of on air hours to make the deejay grow up. Hold that: this may sound pretentious (and it is) radio programmers shy away from being labeled “deejays.” What was once the provenance of the disc jockeys on air, to spin tracks of wax as well as wax on spins past that title now refers to the many club types who wheel the steel, host raves, do trivia nights and pull karaoke. I’ve done all of that, and I can understand why the term, “programmer” has been set aside for the people in the broadcasting booths around the world. Heck, even on day one at the station my boss told me to not use the word “deejay.” WDIY never hosted karaoke nights.

But I did. Check it: in and around my “respectable” programming gig at WDIY, I scored some extra cash by hosting karaoke at an old fave bar. I got that opportunity because a local, well-known and respected deejay manned the boards at said club when he hosted that evenings entertainment. Namely, the local bands who’d perform every Friday and Saturday at no extra door charge for the patrons. DJ Rick was a fixture at the club as well as on the air, so he had some pull. That and he and I were huge Pere Ubu fans. Rick even caged me some bootlegs on disc. Best buds.

The setup for a karaoke night is pretty self-explanatory. You might’ve been there one lazy, bored night. A mixing board, mounted speakers, one or two mics, a dedicated drive housing thousands of push button songs, a monitor tele-prompting lyrics for the drunken brave few and some plank to stand on which the lucky losers can caterwaul for three minutes. Only self-checkout at Wegmans is more complicated.

But you need a deejay to hold it all together (EG: the least drunk guy in the room). That was my job. Basically be hall monitor. Queue up the requests, make sure everything worked right and play to the crowd. For example: “Let’s give a big round for Bob! Warren Zevon told him to beware those “Werewolves Of London!” Now howl! Stuff like that. I had to be Alan Freed; all the jokers had to do was try and sing and land in train wreck territory (even though that was part of the fun) and not barf on stage. Good times to be had by all. At least that’s how Rick described it, and the hundred bucks I scored didn’t hurt for such mercenary work. It also covered my bar tab.

If you’ve never done it, don’t believe the haters. Karaoke is capital F fun. Get a little drunk, loosen up, hop on stage and pretend to be Elvis for a few minutes. Hosting it was great. It was like an inebriated middle school talent show. Sure, try to do good but who really cares? We like music and we’re having fun; so what if we suck? Naked naivete and go with it. Stop being a killjoy and grab the mic.

After many, many rounds of hosting karaoke I learned a few things about our brave, sloshy performers. Namely, we have three types of singers. The first being those who can’t sing, but make up for it just by rocking out. Their buddies cheer them on and sometimes sing along also. It’s all a big joke, and usually the performer buys the next round. Good times had by all, esp the host.

The second karaoke fan is a novelty. Happens seldom, but when it happens it’s a Susan Boyle moment. The person grabs the mic and can actually sing. One time this one guy nailed Bon Jovi’s “Blaze Of Glory” so well I felt like I was stranded on the Garden State Parkway. Casual listeners were stirred. Lighters came out. A lot of screaming and clapping, myself included. Those kind of performances are the stuff of legend. Made me glad I took up Rick’s offer. So much fun.

Then the dreaded then.

I feel this is where karaoke gets a bad rap. It’s all fun and games until we lose an eye. Then we play marbles. Some folks who religiously attend karaoke are like the Blues Brothers: on a mission from God. The fervor is real, but God took a nap an aeon ago. These guys suck all the fun out of the room, stinking of White Claw and daddy issues. They get up on the plank and start singing as if they are really reaching for something, like Simon Cowell is out on the floor somewhere playing foosball or whatever. Simply put, karaoke is all about drunken fun, not getting a free ride to Hollywood. Here’s a tale and a coda about what I think getting lost in sound should go.

Here is a fine example of when the train runs off the tracks. One time where crash and burn was expected, and the stoic deejay had to lend a hand. One karaoke night, the bar was a desert. There were the usual yokels at the bar to be sure, but the floor was a ghost town save one table of eight drunken revelers. It was a birthday party, and the lucky b’day boy had turned 21. He and his party took turns at the mic, the quality of their singing getting ever shriller with each new pitcher. Good times.

I became not the host but a jukebox. The sloshy revelers barked at me to play a certain tune on spec and then fell on the mic and proceeded to warble before I had the chance to turn the monitor and the mic on. It became like playing Tetris, only I was the sole brick. I tried to remain pro—mature—about the debacle. Hey, like I said, when things go “wrong” with karaoke sometimes it’s for the better.

The birthday boy was dared into covering a song near impossible to do drunk, let alone sober. His celebratants demanded I cue up the infamous stream-of-consciousness anti-pop that is REM’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” Four minutes of manic, blurred social commentary culminating in a shout-out to Leonard Bernstein. And this dweeb accepted the challenge. Hail Columbia. He went on record saying he couldn’t really read the monitor. All three of them. Facepalm, but hey, a job’s a job and a song’s a song. I cringed and queued up Mike Stipe and the boys, fingers and toes crossed.

I’d like to say Mr 21 actually did okay. I’d like to say that. In reality it was a shambles, rubbernecking all the way. The song is tricky enough to sing sober. I recall one time catching REM on an MTV Unplugged session and even Michael had the lyrics he had written himself taped to his mic stand. Our birthday boy was taped to the mic stand himself; it supported his woozy weight. Blowing verse after verse and me feeling genuinely sorry for the guy (his friends at the table weren’t much help, mocking him the entire time) I jumped up from behind the deck like a spring and grabbed the other mic. I could read the monitor, but the song was so burned into my consciousness I really didn’t need it. I did an impromptu duet with the guy, me egging him on and singing fractured harmony. It was great fun, and when we had finished the table was on their feet cheering and the dude gave me a hug and bought me a beer. All in a night’s work.

What does my whole riff on karaoke have to do with the radio? A couple of things. One, being the obvious, there’s a good chance any would-be karaoke artist heard their quarry on the radio and was thereby inspired. The second is a bit trickier, and it’s all about communication and that maturity thing. Indulge me.

Besides hearing the daily dirt on NPR, radio can enlighten. It’s mature. I base this claim on a very eloquent, if not spot on claim from musician Richard Carpenter. He was once asked to say which medium he liked better: television or radio. He immediately said radio. Why? “Because the pictures are better.” He cited a Spike Jones number he caught once as a kid on a local radio broadcast, and what a Barnum-esque fever dream got injected into his brain. Carpenter claimed it was that broadcast that made him want to play piano. Not sure of the solid truth behind that tale, but Richard was correct: the pictures are better. They cement any sound into thought, which may bely inspiration and then bely creative output. For good or for ill, but radio doesn’t lie. The broadcasts might, but the reactions don’t.

Radio is mature. It let’s your ears do the talking. You hear songs, you hear news, you hear talk and your imagination fills in the blanks. C’mon, if you’ve ever seen the flick American Graffiti with legendary deejay Wolfman Jack at the boards, spinning tunes and baiting listeners, you’d never pick him out of a police lineup for being remarkable. The only real gesture of man behind the myth was to offer Richard Dreyfuss a melting popsicle. That might be poignant but I don’t know. My worldview is often that way. Shocker.

Radio is free. One of my fave movies is Talk Radio (and probably the only Oliver Stone film I’ve ever enjoyed, and not pummeled by). Despite its subject matter, when I was in high school and caught it on late night TV, with Eric Bogosian ranting and Alec Baldwin reeling, I wanted to be a part of that insidious free and ultimately mature medium of delightful and dire expression. I got my wish 20 years later. My dream had a long gestation period until maturity.

Yeah, yeah. I’ve been on the nose and flowery, but this is what I’m driving at: those sounds you tune into when you can, they’re not just voices in the fan. There are people behind those sound waves. Not just performers but storytellers. Think of that scene in A Christmas Story, where Ralphie and Randy curl up to the cathedral radio to tune into Little Orphan Annie. The boys are rapt, the pictures are better and the on-air adventures are free for all imaginations.

Finally, and perhaps is the core spirit of radio (a la Rush perchance) that it demands a part of your attention that is very hard to ignore, and the messages broadcasted can be very persuasive to listeners curious for new sounds or an echo chamber for their own soundtrack. Radio can also be coercive, subversive and intrusive. It may be a mature medium—the most mature, says I—but only a mature voice can truly scratch at your grey matter.

Which is only barely a centimeter from your itching scalp.


The Story…

Prison sucks. Not only for the obvious reasons (solitary confinement, crap food, soap crises, no cable, etc), but rather its demoralizing. An inmate is just another disenfranchised citizen made more so. Rehabilitation? Nuts. You’re just off the street into a new neighborhood, which might be safer than your old stomping grounds. This time the locks always set.

Feels that way to Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene (Cheadle). He’s been lifer all his, well, life. Another population statistic. Just another successful con to fall to The Man, whomever that is these days. And these days have got Petey all astir. Sure, he may be tucked away from all the tumult that is the 60s, but he’s got an ear. And a mind. And a mouth. And thanks the prison system a microphone.

You see, Petey has special dispensation as the prison’s radio DJ, spinning tunes and mouthing off to his brothers in stir. It’s the only luxury they truly have in the joint, and how the boys love to tune in to Petey’s soulful playlist and bittersweet rants. His voice is a steam valve to vent all the pent-up frustration his fellow cons simmer with even before lock up. And Petey has a captive audience, indeed and so to speak. Too bad it seems like no one on the outside can tune into Petey’s show.

One day the outside comes in. Dewey Hughes (Ejiofor) reluctantly visits his brother Milo (Epps) in the joint, only to be drawn by his brother’s tales of woe to his cracking up at the “tell it like it is” broadcast of the DJ. See, Hughes is the program director at the struggling but once vibrant WOL-AM radio station out of Washington, DC. His job is essentially figure out what’s hip to the listening audience. WOL’s star has been falling, and Hughes’ boss, Mr E G Sonderling (Sheen) demands some new life be injected into their format. Needless to say, Dewey wasn’t listening to Milo much. Nor his boss’ really. Petey’s voice was too loud.

Way leads on to way, and recent parolee Petey shows up at WOL’s door, much to Dewey’s surprise (to say the least). Their current morning show DJ is stuck in the past, and WOL needs to be in the present. They’re getting their ass’ whupped by the rival station. Dewey correctly claims that no one listens to Nat “King” Cole on the radio anymore. The only King folks wanna hear in ’66 is Martin Luther, Jr preaching the truth. WOL needs a preacher from the streets. And DC needs a wake up call to all the junk that few can tell it like it is:

“I’ll tell it to the hot, I’ll tell it to the cold. I’ll tell it to the young, I’ll tell it to the old. I don’t want no laughin’, I don’t want no cryin’, and most of all, no signifyin’. This is Petey Greene’s Washington!”

You heard it here DC, like it or not.


The Breakdown…

For anyone out there who frequents RIORI on a semi-regular basis, you know I have a few man-crushes on certain actors. To me, these fortunate few always deliver the goods, acting wise. Their films may be dopey, but their performances are always fun and engaging. I’m talking about Dwayne Johnson, Sean Connery and my main man here with Talk To Me, Don Cheadle. I’ve been waiting for a decent film with him at top billing since the Soderbergh Ocean’s 11 trilogy. He delivered here, as I hoped he would.

But why here, why now? I mean, the guy has had a long, storied career. Over thirty years with the usual ups and downs (mostly downs), but always working, always plugging. He’s always solid, but often left of center in the general feeling of his roles, whether it be Boogie Nights or Reign Over Me or even his Marvel movie appearnces. So as game an actor as I claim Cheadle to be, what’s up with his rather spotty output?

I have a theory. It’s a good one, I think. You know how some esteemed directors find their protege/muse in an actor and can elicit the best out of them? They test them? Right. Not an uncommon thing in cinema, but seldom this mutualism resulted in the stuff of Hollywood lore (read: great movies and bales of tickets sold wherein). I’ll call it the “John Wayne/John Ford” thing. Not catchy, I know, but it’s to the point and shut it and lissen ‘hup.

A smart director knows how to work their leads; the strengths and weaknesses and how to coax the best out of both, and sometimes its the je ne sais pas we as the audience actually knew what was there all along, even if we didn’t. Or really never considered. Point being, legendary, eclectic director John Ford was a notorious taskmaster, abusing and using and coaxing his charges to give it their all. Some fared better than other prima donnas, like The Duke. I’d like to believe there was a quiet, workmanlike respect between the two. It radiates out of their combined output. Meaning when Ford directed the swagger out of John Wayne, John Wayne the solid actor came to the fore, and not the typewrote cowboy/soldier cipher. Consider Stagecoach, the meta-Western as we know and loathe it today. Consider The Quiet Man, Wayne’s best role with economic dialogue and body language; no posturing, save the flashback sequence. Consider The Searchers, the anti-Western decades before Clint’s equally tantalizing Unforgiven. Ford coaxed The Duke out of Wayne, and the results were nothing less than splendid.

Fanboy-ism? Perhaps, but consider further:

Legendary cult director John Carpenter found his Wayne in Kurt Russell. With him under the wing, Russell starred in three of Carpenter’s best flicks—one of which Russell hilariously aped The Duke—to revelatory levels. Carpenter pulled Russell from the mire of Disney-esque, fam-friendly fodder to the penultimate cult anti-hero Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, all head-butts and blasphemes aplenty. Along with the terror of his version of The Thing and the Chuck Jones-style “kung-foolery” of Big Trouble In Little China, Kurt Russell became a solid action star and no longer filler.

Here’s another great example of the Ford/Wayne dynamic in modern film: the esteemed Martin Scorsese has done this twice with a pair of opposite pole actors, one method, one protean (or maybe just misguided). First he took the relatively unknown, journeyman actor Robert DeNiro and converted/revealed him as the troublesome Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta; all damaged, rough and tumble, sympathetic guys. Marty’s second iteration was with Leo DiCaprio, Mr Terminal Boyish face cum teen actor into fiery Amsterdam, eccentric aviator Howard Hughes and earnest, doomed Danny Castigan. Marty coaxed them both out of the shadows into the spotlight, and the pair returned their accolades in kind.

Get it now?

Okay. Cheadle is one of those actors: find a left of center director who takes Cheadle under their wing (EG: Soderbergh, Anderson, Lemmons, etc), he’s permitted to shine. Don’s not just Detective Walters, he gets to be Cheadle. He’s not Miles Davis, but you wish he were. After watching—and enjoying—Talk, director Lemmons was just left of enough to let Don be Don be Petey. In the immortal words of John “Joliet Jake Blues” Belushi: “Elwood, go nuts.” Boom.

And indeed boom is Talk, but it is measured. The real Greene was a larger than life figure in broadcast radio, which eventually grew into an Emmy-award winning talk show career. The movie isn’t a rags-to-riches story by any means, nor is it some swaggering tribute to the “man against The Man” biopic. Not really. At its core, Talk is a biography, but dramatically dappled with the social commentary, race relations and political spin that neither the government nor its voters—what the hell—left from right is. It’s all about parallels and blurred lines. And a director must be cautious in cutting a bio film occurring in the USA’s cultural upheaval that was the 60s. It’s been a popular well to dip from for Hollywood, to the point of balefully tantalizing. A good example of a director culling history to their own ends in the name of film/personal agendum is most of Oliver Stone’s output, which are often ham-fisted in delivery as well as preachy. For every Platoon we have a Born On The Fourth Of July. For every JFK we have a Nixon. For every Talk Radio we have a script for Conan The Barbarian. Biopic directors have a tough choice choosing from entertaining, informing and railing. The trick is to get a game cast (like we have here) and let organic, organized chaos run rampant.

Since Talk—being a biopic—is naturally a character drama, it’s not just Cheadle the axis upon which the movie spins, it’s the entire ensemble. All of the cast. They all have to be in place to make the movie work as well as it does. Well, okay, to be honest, Cedric and Hall were underused IMHO (more on that later), but they were more or less just symbolic foils of style over Petey’s substance. Yin, yang and of that jazz. There’s just enough ham and cheese to be digestible here. The others, who let’s face it, are steeped in the social message movie tropes (EG: the uptight boss, the hungry ladder climber, the wild girl with a heart of gold, that other guy, etc), but are delivered with such elan you can’t help but follow along. Sure, they might be cyphers, but they are fleshed out; everyone has a backstory here. Even that other guy.

Before I go on about acting (esp Cheadle, doy) I have to point this out: this film is well staged and well framed. Since the bulk of the movie is shot in tight spaces (EG: the broadcasting booth, dive bars, prison cells, etc), reflecting the solitary confinement of both people on the fringe and radio personalities (often one and the same, Bernstein). Voices heard and unheard and should be heard. The scenes created a very episodic feel through the acts, kinda like radio programming. For instance: in the first act, I felt that Lemmons’ direction was simply “go for it.” If this film is about an outrageous person, frame it as such and whet the audiences’ appetite. Remember Pirate Radio? Right, but done better here and with some purpose. Where those DJs were caricatures in which hijinks had to ensue, Lemmons’ presents us with a sense of urgency, all or nothing. This dynamic does well in introducing Petey’s inner circle, new and old, straight and chased alike.

Consider Ejiofor’s Dewey. No offense intended, but the man plays an excellent Tom; a black man “passing” in the corporate media world. He’s very self-aware of his position, he responsibilities and his “place” within the job. Moreover, his duty to the people is what drives him for the most part. Mostly his people, as if to compensate for striving. And as he strives as the (devil’s) advocate for Petey at WOL, Dewey not so secretly—but subtly enough—wishes he had Petey’s new gig, later almost living vicariously through his loudmouth, ex-con bullhorn but still playing the porch nigga scam to his disgust. Although he cares deeply about getting a message out (as well as crushing the competition), he wants to play it safe and let Petey do the dirty work. Dewey is a seat-of-his-pants wheeler dealer; his motives aren’t really suspect, but the motivation itself might be: does he want WOL to succeed with a fresh, hip, with it new DJ for the people? Or does Dewey need Petey to speak the words he wished he could speak but constrained by his responsibilities? Might make sense considering all the misguided faith Dewey has in Petey, criminal record or no (or one he “wished” he had kept). At first I thought this movie was all about Petey. In the endgame it was really all about Dewey.

I really dug Martin Sheen as WOL’s put upon general manager Sonderling. It might be Sheen’s best role since The West Wing. He may be a hot mess, but he understands what’s at stake if WOL doesn’t evolve with the times. No matter how many times Sonderling calls in security to escort the crude Petey away, he’s always willing to let him back into the booth. You get the feeling the man knows what’s what, but his hands are tied by FCC rules and regs, as well as losing face within the broadcasting community by using a stunt like putting an ex-con and his outspoken, prison-drenched ghetto speak about how f*cked up the nation is. He’s hip to what’s changing in DC, but he doesn’t want to lose his job over saying so. Petey is his avatar, not unlike Dewey if you think about it, so he takes the necessary risk. Sometimes you gotta loose a finger—or some face—to save a hand.

Henson is also a choice actress of mine. Believe it or don’t. But she does have range, and can be very funny without being comical as here with Talk. Despite Petey’s wiseacre style, Vernell is the comic relief, but not so much as to crack wise in turn but pop some bubbles. She was Miss Reality Check. Sure, Henson was brassy, sassy and no fool, but was also the yin to Dewey’s yang for keeping Petey in check and on the ground professionally. Need Petey be reminded how much WOL’s security would love to drag their fresh-faced DJ back to the clink and the brink. If Petey was meant to “tell it like it is” then Vernell was meant to tell Petey what it is, and Henson did so with a streetwise verve.

And now Cheadle’s performance, natch. I’ll try and not gush, but again it sure was fun to watch the man live up to his potential. If you think about it, Cheadle has done a lot of road work in biopics. From portraying Sammy Davis, Jr in The Rat Pack, Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda, and post-Talk Miles Davis for Miles Ahead (BTW, was Talk a dry run for Miles Ahead? Discuss) the guy is seasoned in playing real people as other people. If you think about this, it must be pretty tricky to act as a real figure would rather than what a fictional character would do. You’re trying to pay homage to a real public figure in history; there’s a small but very vocal audience out there waiting for you to f*ck it up or be bound for glory (in that order, always). And f*ck-ups occur with stunning, disappointing regularity in Hollywood biopic output. I mean, for every Talk To Me we have a Wired, inch for inch. Recalling the whole comic book folderol, we sickos kinda wanna see our heroes fail on the big screen. It’s always a big breath-grabbing whew when a filmmaker dodges that bullet. Even with a cult icon like Petey, Cheadle plays it straight, so even the ignorant “gets it.” After all, that was the real Petey’s motivation: for the right folks to get it.

I think I got it pretty good. Beneath the pseudo-rags-to-riches biopic, we have the art of the steal. Namely, who’s conning who and how? Sure, Petey is a miscreant with a mile long rap sheet, but that’s the obvious thing. Radio may be mature and free, but it lies a lot too. Misinforms you. Sways you. Derails your train of thought sometimes. That’s part of the point, but do those on air voices want to just tell ya or sell ya? Here’s a few examples: at the end of the first act, I loved the scene where Petey is “escorted” to the broadcast booth. It’s almost akin to his being let free from prison into another box. Another golden moment was when Petey was “legit” on the air with no heroics (well, maybe for Dewey, all flop sweat). Which one’s real? The first time Petey sat in the WOL chair he REDACTED, despite having another captive audience at his whims. What gives? Is the voice of the people and its delivery all a scam? Who’s conning who in the endgame? Do you hear what you want to hear? Do the broadcasts speak the truth or just feed you? Is Dewey living vicariously through (his idol) Petey? That may go to say sure, regarding the historical fact that Dewey later went on to REDACTED in real life. Is the voice of the people for the people, for the speaker or just an echo chamber. To be blunt, memes originated in the 70s and all social media is an sounding board. Or karaoke night.

Yeah, Talk is a character study, duh. Of course I’m going to cite the acting as vital. However, there is always a flipside. Remember that stereotype thing earlier? Right. Lay some blame at Cedric and Hall’s feet. Those two were wasted opportunity, yo. At first glance, these two characters are representative of the stereotypes Petey likes to rail against. We have suave, soulful playa Nighthawk pimping his word and his persona as a voice of the people, a voice representing their needs and sympathies through music and pillow talk (again, shades of Pirate Radio). In simpler terms, showman and caricature. Hall is the opposite, of the old skool and old guard about what he thinks the people want to hear: dulcet tones of black crooners of yesteryear. Soul fool to ease the soul. More like comfort food, which we know in the end is decidedly not good for you. Two ends Petey is struggling against in the black community, style over substance and vice versa.

It’s a good social theory I feel (sure), but how Hall and Cedric were used just as cyphers was boring. We’re getting slapped around for the first act how vital these two programmers are to the WOL family. How? Nighthawk is a comic book character and Sunny Jim is your grandad, and neither were really convincing as the voice of the left or the right. Sure, it was hinted at, and both are competent character actors, but neither Hall or Cedric really got into character. They just filled time and space to suit the narrative. That and Petey was the center of the story, overarching and vocal, which didn’t give let alone permit Hawk and Sunny to shine. They were eyewash. Maybe ear-wash even. I dunno. Hey, if this was the only real gripe about the flick, consider me charitable.

There’s always the technical part to consider in a period piece like Talk. It covers the mid to late 60s and beyond. Y’all know what that entails: social unrest, bitter race relations, marches on Washington in protest of Vietnam, pot, free love and LBJ. That’s just for starters and not necessarily in that order. The best way to wallpaper rough times such as those is with the pop culture therein. Stuff we the average, in-the-know-thanks-to-social-media-you-tube-crazy-cat-memes 21st Century joes and janes should recall from the recent history books. Stuff like the great costuming and makeup with the film. Can’t forget the soundtrack (IE: Terence Blanchard did the soundtrack. That’s capital Q quality there) rife with James, Sly, the Chambers, the Reverend and Marvin. Use a little nostalgia to make the make the urine of the dirty past go down a little easier. And there is a lot of social commentary to digest. The 1960s were not all peace and love, and least not for non-Anglos. What better place—if only through happenstance—to have Washington be the setting? If Talk is a biopic with a message, where else and time to reflect the neo-tumultuous times in these our Millennial United States? Who do you trust when FoxNews propaganda fuels the fires of racial unrest, when music is more commercial than ever as commodity over expression? When the maturity of radio is sidelined to the proverbial echo chamber? Folks like Petey and his kind are redolent of a voice of the people we so desperately need now. So who’s conning who?

…That was deep (*burp*). Weren’t we talking about some movie?

Said plain, Cheadle delivers the goods with the right director. A patient one, and one who understands what’s at stake balancing entertainment with a message, and not making it some mawkish crusade highlighting the protagonist as some saint. Cheadle’s Petey is decidedly not, nor is he the voice of his people. If he was, he wouldn’t be on the radio. He’d be at the Lincoln Memorial. Instead of an simmering throng he gets a microphone, he gets to be a figure without being seen; his audience never sees an ex-con. Oh sure, he screams he’s a “miscreant” all movie long, but that label doesn’t really befit him. He’s just another cog in the disinformation machine, and that’s as timely as Reddit nowadays, if only for an hour and then forgotten. It’s Cheadle’s Petey’s tough naïveté that’s the appeal, and we always root for an underdog, no matter how disenfranchised or ragged. Lemmons let Cheadle be Cheadle, with patience, and out came a great perforamce that informed the rest of the cast and the message of the movie with minimal bubbles.

The final act runs out of steam, though. I wonder if that was the point. I think so. Being on air takes a lot out of you. I know; I used to try and take a nap after my show, mostly behind the wheel en route to my real job. The final scenes pass in a blur, where Petey REDACTED and his other side of the coin Dewey gets a comeuppance. Like that scene, Talk can get exhausting, and stuff doesn’t always pan out the way it’s planned. The final act illustrates that well. Being a voice in the ether can take its psychic toll; cracking wise and spouting truth can wear the speaker down. It can wear the audience down also, but both always tune back in the next time. We wouldn’t want to miss a possible chance for the right message to be called out and the right ears hear it. If only for a little bit, and not to get conned by doggerel again.

Huh. Covered a lotta kooky ground this time out. Let’s see we have the maturity of radio, the seduction of radio, The Duke, The Admiral, doggerel (can’t believe I had to use that term) and Cheadle—finally—in his element. Hope it added up to some sense, now that we’re all back on board with fresh installments of RIORI. Let’s hope I can keep it on a steady wavelength.

And this I just gotta say: “Don’t touch that dial!”

*rimshot/crushed, hurled beer cans*


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. Turn on, tune in, drop by for the flipside. Finally a role worthy of Cheadle’s talents. Oh yeah, support your community radio station, lest Billie Ellish have a fruitful career. Shudder.


The Stray Observations…

  • “Wake up, goddammit!”
  • Barring QuestLove, whatever happened to the afro? I’m kinda serious.
  • “Did he jus’ say ‘blue blazes’?”
  • That tune playing in the background of that decisive pool game was “Chinese Checkers” by Booker T & The MGs. Clever. And nine-ball is a lucky man’s game.
  • “Watch your language!”
  • All through the movie this was nagging at me: Dewey sports some cool hair. It’s all about the sideburns, baby.
  • “That white boy he was with…?”
  • Great edit: Vernell’s apartment to Dewey’s door.
  • I’m the people.”
  • Yes, that is the original cut of “Tainted Love” playing. No surprise that it punctuates that key scene. Also clever.
  • “Now we’re even.”
  • Oh God, the riots…left out of the history books. Sheen’s response to Cheadle’s eloquent soliloquy is priceless.
  • “Hey, Dave.”
  • Petey Green: The black Lenny Bruce? Or the proto-Pryor?
  • “Was it free p*ssy day or sumpin’?”
  • Fun fact: director Lemmons played Clarice Starling’s roomie Ardelia in The Silence Of The Lambs.
  • “Do you mean I get a job or what?”

The Next Time…

“I doth decree that thou shall not parody Excalibur, The Sword And The Sorcerer and especially The Princess Bride!”

“As you wish, Your Highness.


 

RIORI Vol 3, Installment 30: Joel Coen’s “Intolerable Cruelty” (2003)


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The Players…

George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Edward Herrman, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Adelstein and Cedric The Entertainer, with Julia Duffy, Geoffrey Rush and Richard Jenkins.


The Story…

Love is fleeting as it’s been said. That’s why we have prenups. Serial golddigger Marilyn has a made a career of “marrying right” in order to divorce when the check clears. Finding Mr Right is a distant second to scoring Mr Right For Now.

When Marilyn solicits Miles Massey’s law firm for her latest chump to dump, he smells a rat and a scam. And an irresistible fiscal black widow Miles can only regard as “fascinating.”

And the case. Right, let’s not forget the case.


The Rant…

Short one this week. Kick back. Grab some Cheetos.

So. Do you remember your first Coen Brothers’ movie?

I do. They’re kinda like an event nowadays. Films made for a cult audience before the cult’s even made. I first experienced that hoo-hah back in college, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Again.

My first toe-dip into the Coen’s olympic-sized film pool was by way of Raising Arizona. Didn’t get it then. I was a kid. Liked Nic Cage because he was loony and hammy. Saw Arizona the same year Peggy Sue Got Married came out on video. Even though being a kid and totally removed from the film’s 50s pop culture references I liked that film enough. It was where I first met Cage really, and got reacquainted with that funny lady from Romancing The Stone, too, which was nice—mostly for Cage’s nasally delivery. The whole time travel thing was cool, too. Such simpler movie watching times then.

So me being a nascent Cage fan, hearing about the Arizona movie I checked it out. Like I said, didn’t get it. Too young. But Nic was clowning around and the whole goofy kidnapping caper tickled my fancy, enough so that I still remember the film aeons later. Must’ve left an impression.

The Coen’s movies sure do that. Leave an impression. It might not always be a good impression, but their signature sticks in your teeth like a Jolly Rancher, regardless of being either sweet or sour. Sure, other directors have their signature thumbprints all over their work (e.g.: Scorsese, Spielberg, Kubrick, Hitchcock, etc), and you look forward to their usual antics, but the Coen’s work is so oblique, so abstract, so f*cking weird we don’t get thumbprints. We get a five-fingered slap. And it can feel oh so good.

But for every Fargo, The Big Lebowski and Miller’s Crossing, we can also get The Hudsucker Proxy, The Ladykillers and Paris, Je T’Aime. I ain’t saying the latter films suck, but the Coen impression is skewed here, beyond the wacky scripts and bizarre acting. There’s inconsistency with the impression. Even some of Spielberg’s lesser films still smell like a steady Spielberg project. Coen films are a lot like comparing sex and pizza. When it’s good, it’s good, and when it’s bad it’s still good. But for both accounts, when it’s bad is isn’t necessary bad when it comes to Coen films. But it can be unsatisfying.

Akin to my Raising Arizona story, that Coen impression can be so palpable that when you watch one of their fluffier films you run the risk of walking away scratching your head. “What was up with that?” you may ask yourself after watching Inside Llewyn Davis two weeks after seeing No Country For Old Men. You dig? With the Coen brothers, it’s never really a good impression or a bad one. Across a continuum it can be a baffling impression. I understand all directors want to squeeze the orange every so carefully with each of their ensuing films, but the Coen’s work is so eclectic, and their quality is so all over the map it gets hard to adjust your lens.

Take this week’s installment…


She’s cunning. She’s deceptive. She’s gorgeous. And she’s loaded, which is separate from her other assets.

Marilyn Rexroth (Jones) is a serial golddigger. Professional golddigger is more apt, and she knows how to squeeze both a bank account and a scrotum with equal ease. The former is her weapon of choice. And her latest stupid, prey is on the chopping block, the cheating Rex Rexroth (Herrman). So to make sure she gets the biggest buck for her bang, Marilyn seeks out the best counsel against the law firm of Massey et al to secure the prenuptials.

Slick marriage attorney Miles Massey (Clooney) knows a ripe peach when he picks one. Marilyn’s beguiling…case proves to be a curious one. Miles suspects Marilyn isn’t the damaged, rueful ex-wife she appears to be. He scours about the law community trying to get some scuttlebutt on this woman’s true motives—which are painfully obvious.

But as Miles gets to understand his quarry, he finds himself slowly getting tangled in Marilyn’s web of…of…

How fascinating…


Like I began to babble about up top, my first real Coen movie exposure came in my senior year of college. Not one of their films, per se, just the reactions to one. The movie of the moment then, whose buzz could not be killed with an entire pallet of Raid was The Big Lebowski. My peers raved. They cheered. They took the White Russian-soaked philosophical mumblings of The Dude quite seriously. A cult was brewing. I was hesitant.

I’ve always been suspicious of the mass pop cultural appeal towards the movie/TV show/band/book/yoga position of the moment. For example, when the novel The DiVinci Code was the book on everyone’s quivering lips, I steered clear. Since the majority of Americans are functionally illiterate, when the hoi polloi starts salivating over a few pages, I arch a brow. I once got a “recommendation” for Dan Brown’s opus from a bar buddy of mine. Her claim, “Don’t worry. The chapters are short” was hardly a ringing endorsement. Back when Lebowski was the flavor of the week, and my esteemed colleagues would just not quit answering all questions with, “The Dude abides,” I slinked away and said later, gator. It took many years for me to get around to see the thing. Then and only then I figured out what my friends were slobbering over. It’s a great movie, granted. I guess I had already seen a lot of other films from the Coen Canon before my eventual few frames with Walt and Donny, so when the hammer came down I knew what to expect. I wasn’t disappointed. And of course I was pleased. Because that crucial Coen impression was slathered all over the place.

Cruelty has the impression all right. It’s just not a good impression, and not in the sex/pizza paradigm, either.

Let’s get right to the point, Cruelty is a comedy in the vein of its Coen-helmed ancestor, Raising Arizona. Only it’s the opposite. Where the latter was an experiment in the bizarre, and totally left field compared to other comedies of its ilk back in 1987 (eg: Three Men And A Baby. Need I say more, Spock?), the former is a straightforward black comedy. Arizona was the anti-comedy. Cruelty is a winking screwball comedy. Almost, but lacks bite. A great part of the Coen’s impression is bite. Stinging, ribald, getting-under-the-skin bite. Cruelty has almost no bite. It gums. It’s goofy, to be sure as comedies like these are, but the movie flies by in such a gale that nothing gets a chance to take hold. Stick. Penetrate. Chafe. Ow.

Sorry.

Cruelty is a slick caper, this one. It’s not that there’s anything overtly off-putting here—acting’s good, story’s not dull, Jones is hot—but one gets the feeling that the Coens are deliberately holding back. You know, taking a few Ativan and seeing if they can bring wacky, campy sh*t to rise minus the late Randall “Tex” Cobb and his shenanigans. The end result here doesn’t feel very organic though, not the way like, say Fargo was. And that movie was a lot funnier than Cruelty is, albeit more stark. Then again Cruelty is a deliberate black comedy, trying very hard to be screwy, and maybe on purpose. I mean, it felt like the Coens were reaching for something here, something more mainstream in a comedy compared to their past efforts. But the whole thing just zooms by with nary a whit of subtly, like there’s some hurry to get to the resolution or the kitties will burn. It’s like staring into the microwave, watching that spinning cup of coffee boil over.

In simpler terms, slow it the f*ck down. Moving on.

Cruelty kinda reminds me of one of those daffy comedies starring Cary Grant back in the day. It’s would explain Clooney’s delivery, all snapping teeth, mile-wide smile and silver-tongued scene chewing. His Miles is a second cousin to Ulysses McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou?—I know, I know. One more Coen movie citation and out the window with me—all fast talking and on the cusp of total ham. Whereas Ulysses tried to be an honorable husband and dad, Miles’ smarminess belies a petulant, pimply teen inside, always squirming with self-doubt. For all his wheeler-dealing, high-end divorce lawyer guise, what ultimately motivates him is getting girls to notice him. There are plenty of scenes when Miles is scampering about like spoiled, randy teenager, all bluff and bluster. It’s somewhat charming, but not necessarily endearing. Miles’ is ostensibly the protagonist; why’s he so reactionary?

Perhaps because Jones’ Marylin is so seductive, and not in the silk stocking kind of way. She’s a smooth operator, all right. Some master criminals scheme their schemes with maniacal glee. Well, so does Marilyn. Save the rare remorseful, crying jag she’s as scheming as they come. In a way, her nefarious lack of bluster makes her all the more Black Widow-type. Only instead of killing her prey, she kills their livelihood. It’s a kind of bullying really, and maybe a form of radical feminism. I don’t need a man for what he can give me; I want what he can give me. Jones is the villain here, and a delicious chimera if there ever was one. Best part of the film I figure. And kudos to the wardrobe department.

Despite the mostly seamless (get it?), winding, interconnecting plot threads in Cruelty, the whole thing comes across as way to busy and rushed. Feels like Coen comedy lite. Sure, it was amusing, and professional in its execution. And it did smack of a Coen Brothers madcap comedy, but everything was too measured. No real edge. No Hudsucker here. No tension. Slick like Miles courtroom babbling and everything streamlined because Marilyn has other fish to fry. Hurry, hurry, hurry. IfI get to timer watching—so to speak—there be a problem, laddie buck.

Welp, that’s about it as far as this installment goes. Other things of note (I don’t want to be derelict in my duties by ignoring other noteworthy sh*t. Yer welcome) that Cruelty sports the usual, eclectic, tasteful, awesome supporting cast of misfits and wastrels. We still have plenty of Andy Kaufman-esque “punk the audience” humor. There was a fair amount of head-scratching curiosity (one could say too much). The movie didn’t outright suck, but it was for lacking. Cruelty was a casserole of half-baked ideas and malformed notions, and maybe all a deliberate mess. Taken as a whole, Cruelty was sadly less than the some of its more impressive parts.

Y’know, now that I think about it, Cruely kinda played like a mashup of other Coen comedies. This specimen seemed fused together from ideas scattered on the cutting room floor. Was this part of any underlying comedy here? Like the Coens were trying to bait the audience by preying on blind fandom and Jones’ boobies?

And do they even have cutting rooms anymore?


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Hey, not every Coen Brother film is worth quoting, y’dig? It’s like this is what happens when you find a stranger in th—Ow!


Stray Observations…

  • I think this is the first movie I’ve seen starring Jones with her not shedding the Brit accent. Maybe the lilt in her speech was meant to make her Marilyn all the more intriguing.
  • “We’ll eat the pastry!”
  • Was it just me, but didn’t Miles’ big speech at the convention kinda flow like Jimmy Stewart’s in Mr Smith Goes To Washington? Like I claimed, classic comedy film undertones. Discuss.
  • “This man is tuna.” F*cking vile, that.
  • Living Without Intestines. Now that’s bathroom reading. And it has a pinup!
  • “Who needs a home when you have a colostomy bag?” Good point.
  • Talk about eating your words (*rimshot*).
  • “Punky’s Dilemma.” Clever.
  • “I nailed your ass!”

 


Next Installment…

The Physician of the Middle Ages understood that the only real obstacle on the way to becoming a healer was ignorance. And superstition. And the Catholic Church. And the Inquisition. And traveling afar to unknown lands. And eventually HMOs. And…


RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 3: Darnell Martin’s “Cadillac Records” (2008)


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The Players…

Adrien Brody, Jeffery Wright, Columbus Short, Mos Def, Eaamon Walker, Cedric the Entertainer and Beyonce Knowles.


The Story…

The history of Chess Records over the course of three decades reveals the rise (and occasional fall) of Chicago musical luminaries such as Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Etta James, all planting the roots of rock n’ roll…and the notoriety that can come with it.


The Rant…

I love music. I love movies too, but it’s only a close second. The reason why this blog is about movies is because I can wrap my head around that art form. Music is just so wide and varied and freakin’ complicated that I lack the verbiage to document opinions about it. Music just goes on forever, but there is a starting gate somewhere for the first motion picture. I can go from there. Anyway, anyone who knows me knows that I am a rock n’ roll guy. Have been since I got a hold of dad’s Elton John tapes (yes, tapes). Love rock n’ roll; it’s in my DNA. But I do have a great deal of respect for the genre’s progenitors. Cats like Chuck Berry (possibly the world’s first guitar hero. Ask Keith Richards), Louis Jordan (a personal favorite of mine), Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Ruth Brown and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins—to name a few—I have easily and often cut my teeth on again and again. There could be no rock without these folks.

When I was younger in my music collecting, I was a completist. Got into a band and/or singer I liked? Had to collect the back catalogue. Delving further into sniffing about a band’s roots, I’d investigate their influences. For instance, I discovered Kraftwerk by way of Joy Division by way of New Order. That kind of sifting. I learned that the thrill of the hunt (both finding records and tracing a band’s roots) could be just as bracing as the albums I’d eventually come to wear out.

This detective outcropped to where the music physically came from. As a kid and up until now, I always dug maps. I have an outdated atlas from NatGeo kicking around somewhere, battered from my endless searching. Nowadays I occasionally like to futz around with Google Maps. Y’know, because it’s cheaper than actually travel, an the satellite images fascinate me. Now granted as a kid, I couldn’t just hop on a plane to England to visit Elton’s hometown, but it gave me a sense of wonder to hear where my musical idols came from, hence the map thing. Next best thing to being there: artists bios and a place they called home. To put it simply: “The Beatles are cool. Where the heck is Liverpool?”

Paired with my twin interests in music and travel (if only in my mind), I later heard about places where certain kinds of music originated. Face it, America is a big place, populated with all sorts of creative weirdoes. Regardless of which coast you hail from, there’s gonna be a local music scene that’s uniquely, well, unique. Places like the rustic Mississippi Delta, good ol’ Memphis, Tennessee, New York’s downtrodden Lower East Side or the raked suburbs of Los Angeles. A good portion of most modern rock music can be traced back to such places. And from those places came legendary recording studios like Sun Records and Stax in Memphis, Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Abbey Road in London, or Hitsville USA in Detroit.

Not to mention Chess Records, the home of Chicago electric blues…


Leonard Chess (Brody) is a humble junk dealer, living the typical hardscrabble existence in the dumps of Southside. Needless to say, he’s broke and has very little prospects. Okay, none. What he really wants to do is open a nightclub for the musicians to play the “race music” he so enjoys, but first he’s gotta save his pennies for someday.

McKinley Morganfield—better known to his friends as Muddy Waters (Wright)—is a broke-ass sharecropper from the Mississippi Delta, living a thankless, backbreaking existence hoeing rows and earning nary a penny for his labors. What he’d rather be doing is strumming on his beater guitar, and maybe earn a living off of that someday, too. But first things first he’s gotta get off the farm.

Fast-forward a few years. Chess dumped the dump and got his bar; Waters got off the plantation, guitar in tow. The first settled down and dug in. The second got himself up Chicago way, playing his axe in street, hopeful to score a deal with his rip roaring slide guitar licks. After a fateful evening of improv at Chess’ bar where a weary Southern black guitar slinger meets a working class white Jewish barkeep…well let’s just say that from such humble beginnings, legacies are born.

Chess takes interest in Waters’ jamming and suggests they cut a record together. At first Waters is confused. What’s a curious peckerwood Jewish bartender know about music? Turns out a lot. Not long after Chess cuts a hit for Muddy, he starts to wrangle in other bluesy talents from around the Chicago circuit. There’s Little Walter, diminutive harp player and Waters’ aide-de-campe; Howlin’ Wolf, a burly blues singer from down Mississippi way; bluesman Willie Dixon who quickly becomes the house songwriter; upstart guitar slinger Chuck Berry who ushers in a new kind of music dubbed “rock and roll.” And lastly blues chanteuse Etta James, whose heartbreaking vocals could pull the tears from the stoniest of eyes. Yes indeed, the fledgling Chess Records roster quickly become synonymous with rhythm and blues.

Over the next few decades, Chess Records is peerless in it attraction and distribution of all kinds of “race music,” pioneering sounds and bringing to the masses the styles of Chicago electric blues, jump blues, early rock ‘n roll and whole slew of other styles that take the nation by storm. But all is not golden in Camelot. With great fame and fortune can come high peaks, yes, but also some crushing pitfalls. The life of a popular musician can swim in fortune and fame, but also foster loss, deception and the occasional tragedy. Not got for business, and nothing can last forever.

So the short, influential life of Leonard Chess and his recording studio was once the house of blues, molding the culture of Chicago’s music scene for decades to come, shared success and failure equally. Not all of it was wine, women and song. Well, most of it was. But for a time, the musical nexus of America was a dumpy recording studio in Chicago’s south side…


The frank plot outline above is in direct response to a Hollywood device I’ve always had trouble with: the ensemble biopic. Whereas a biopic with one central character, say the big screen story of Walk The Line, has a fulcrum to pivot on (i.e. Johnny Cash), a story involving a family like the Chess Records players tends to lack a tentpole for which the entire story can hang. To remedy this problem, the movie employs another device that I sometimes take issue with: a narrator.

Now don’t get me wrong, a lot of good movies have employed a narrator to great effect. Forrest Gump is a good example, and so was Fight Club (odd that these two movies were adaptations of novels, where narrators are indispensible. Hmm). In Cadillac Records, Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer, adopting a rather off-putting caricature of your stereotypical bluesman) serves as the voice and storyteller of Chess Records’ rise and fall. Here’s the issue: stories about places, and the ensemble of players within, seem to employ a narrator when the story is too varied and needs a focus. In other words, the story can’t stand by itself. Cedric does a serviceable job as Records’ spinner of tales, but ultimately wasn’t necessary.

There’s enough going on in and around Chess to scoop up your attention just by itself. Take the opening credits. Cinema verite of the sounds, sight and songs of the subject matter. The montage was very indie, which set my mind up for some expectations. Namely, the needful drive to set the film apart form Hollywood biopics ran fast and loose, which is an affliction of most indie films. Another trouble with biopics is you gotta embellish and exaggerate the story, since the reality is probably a lot more mundane. For instance, we can’t have many scenes where Chess is negotiating contracts with the potential talent (which must always be more involved than what Hollywood portrays, doubtless with lawyers stinking up the joint) or the unglamorous trials of touring via bus to points afar. You get what I mean; you gotta strip the story down to meat and bone and spice up the meat to make the story tastier.

From the opening credits we sure do get fast, loose and spicy. Scene upon scene serving as touchstones for the origins of Chess Records. Chess in the junkyard, Waters on the plantations. Chess in the bar, Waters on the Chicago streets. The struggles, successes and women (of which there is a lot) come in at rapid clip. It feels like this movie is in a hurry. And it is, trying to cram in as much info as possible to bookend the scenes that matter most: the musical ones. No real surprise there, but before I get too academic about it all (and I’ve noticed with these reviews my voice has been getting more uptight and stentorian with each passing week. Sorry about the lack of snark. I’m gonna try an fix that later on), I gotta get down with the film’s more accessible points beyond the technical crap.

Stuff like dialogue, which at the outset is none too promising. I’m not saying the writing is shoddy (which it kinda is), but how it’s delivered. Wright makes for an outstanding Muddy, but his delivery is rather unconvincing, not unlike the rest of the cast. He’s like your stereotypical journeyman blues guy, rough on the outside due to hard promises, golden on the inside for his gift for creating joy from his axe. Now Wright made for a damn fine Muddy Waters, all gritty and downbeat, but he had to work with what he was given, and he comes across rather one-note. A good note, but narrow all the same. As an aside, I’ve seen a couple of films here at RIORI that Wright starred in, and he is fast becoming a favorite character actor of mine. He’s very versatile in his work, and is more the less the lead of the picture, shouldering out Oscar winner Brody.

Brody as the titular music tycoon is sort of blah despite being the alleged center on which the whole story spins. Wright steals the show. As do most of the other players. Hot-headed Columbus Short as Little Walter is all fire and naïveté and plays the Flava Flav to Waters’ Chuck D. Another subtly impressive role was Eamon Walker’s portrayal of Howlin’ Wolf. Walker is an imposing charater, darker and deeper than Muddy. He was kind of scary too, not unlike the mountain of the actual man.

Here’s a treat: Mos Def as Chuck Berry. What a hoot. He’s the comic relief, all freewheeling and pop star without a whit of irony. Def has a nice Berry voice, not on point but you gotta give credit where it’s due. It’s kind of hard to screw up a role of a musician when you’re a musician yourself. But on the other hand there’s Beyonce at Etta James. The less about that the better. She’s a singer. She’s a singer playing a singer. She’s all melodrama and singled dimension. She’s got sass but should stick with singing, which for the most part she does belting out James’ signature tunes with aplomb.

Okay. There. We’ve covered the acting bases. The acting is scattershot overall, and not many of the characters (save Wright) are consistency convincing. Records is movie with an ensemble cast. The cast doesn’t play well with—off—each other. Moving on.

There’s a lot of Hollywood trappings in Records also, despite it being an indie film. For instance, the old tried and true schtick of crossing the race barrier. The film makes no bones about both Chess and Waters being on the outside, but of course between their synergy, both rise to fame and fortune. There are again stereotypical scenes addressing race relations and how music transcends all and blah blah blah. It’s a very tried trope. To trim up the film, maybe it should have been avoided altogether. I mean, c’mon. Hell, these are black blues singers working with a Jewish guy during the height of racial segregation in urban 1960s Chicago, on the air or otherwise. What the hell do you thinks gonna happen? The whole race card game is played, Hollywood. We get it. Stop reminding us. Or at least save it for one of Ken Burns’ epic PBS documentaries. Not all music stories need to be so drenched in tragedy. Not to downplay it (because without that tension, would the music have been so seminal?) but it’s stale.

What really sinks Records is too much melodrama and (you guessed it) slow pacing. Again with the pacing. There’s a lot to say about the history of Chess Records, and Cedric does his damndest to keep us apprised, but every scene is just slammed onto the screen as if the director is gonna run out of film. There’s a lot say, all right, but as an audience we don’t want to feel hurried. Watching the movie I had this recurring feeling that I had missed something. Out of breath is a bad way to watch a movie.

I love music. I want to love movies about music (not movie musicals, I generally think that sh*t’s corny). I wanted to love Cadillac Records. I didn’t. The music Chess put out hit close to my LP collection heart, but the tale of how those tunes were spun were hampered with Hollywood stereotypes and rushed production.

You know what? It takes dozens of takes to get a movie right. Sometimes with a song you can do it unjust  one. Maybe I should just’ve stuck with the albums.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Despite my enthusiasm for the subject, relent it. The film is too rushed, too staged and too fragile.


Stray Observations…

  • Mos Def as Chuck Berry. Is it a bad thing that all my fave hip-hop artists become actors? They always quit rapping.
  • “There’s your riff right there.” “Ain’t nothing to that.” Understatement of the career.
  • That tear. “She’s gonna need milk.”
  • Hot sauce. Yes. Some cultural touchstones really do transcend barriers.
  • “Skinny motherf*cker…”

Next Installment…

Aspiring writer Rob Brown is Finding Forrester to be a misanthrope, a crank and quite possibly the best teacher he’s ever had.