RIORI Vol 3, Installment 34: Michel Gondry’s “Be Kind Rewind” (2008)

 


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The Players…

Mos Def, Jack Black, Danny Glover and Melonie Diaz, with Mia Farrow and Sigourney Weaver.


The Story…

There is a corporate attack on indie films!

No, not that kind. The folks at Be Kind Rewind, a little mom-and-pop video rental, are having trouble keeping up with the Jones’. No one rents VHS tapes anymore, save the shop’s local, loyal, and perhaps misguided patrons. Beyond those folks, and in these days of Netflix deliveries and digital streaming, Be Kind Rewind barely has any legs to stand on. Let alone stumps.

But what about this nefarious corporate plot to destroy the local video mart? Blame the power plant across the way. Clerk Jerry thinks the exposure from high tension wires is playing hell with his brain—by extension his store—and plans to engage in some serious sabotage. If not for the sake of his fevered mind, then in the name of the store and the few who frequent there!

Viva le cinema!


The Rant…

When I was a mere stripling back in the 80s, VCRs finally became affordable at a sane price. Prior to, say, 1980 if you wanted to enjoy the luxury of watching movies in the comfort and privacy of your own mancave, you’d have to shell out enough to afford a new Buick, minus the tires. By the mid-80s, as my dad did understood, all you needed was 500 bucks. This was 80s dollars, mind you. Not cheap, but relatively reasonable (my father got a sharp deal coughing up enough for a high end unit. The thing held up well into the DVD years. It now holds up a steamer trunk in the basement). Yay. Now all the hit titles you wanted were available at the local Blockbuster ready for your couch. Or maybe via your supermarket. Or a few sketchy holes in the wall. Or pawn shops. Or that scabby guy on the street corner outside the CVS with the trench coat and the breath that smells of durian fruit. Multimedia infancy awaits your open arms!

To wit, circa 1985 you could rent a VHS f*ckin’ anywhere. And I wasn’t kidding about the supermarket either. It’s where I checked out the first Batman movie by Tim Burton. I even had a coupon form their circular at the ready. You know, to save a few. Really.

But here I introduce the ultimate bane of renting movies in the 80s. Not all in Heaven is free. We’re not including the sh*tty audio and video quality of the tapes exacerbated by thousands of plays from random strangers. As much of an ass pinch that was, I’m talking about the kryptonite that weakened every avid film renter back then: the dreaded late fee.

*collective screams from folks alive between Reagan and Clinton*

Before Reed Hastings’ ingenuity, your average movie rental had a very small window into which one may watch a movie checked out from the local Fotomat. Two days was the usual time slot. If you didn’t get that tape in your hot, little hands and back to the DMV as fast as your little, furry legs could carry you and—blammo—you get smacked upside the head with a late fee. In 80s bucks it usually meant the GDP of Belgium for having your copy of Top Gun 30 minutes late. You couldn’t even watch movies in your mancave without the doomsday clock ticking in the background. It was kinda hard to immerse oneself in Rain Man knowing you had best vacate the ball before midnight bell tolled. Or 4 PM. Whatever came first.

A lesser trouble with video rentals—although no less aggravating—was that damned time window. And if you checked your watch, you didn’t even get the full two days to enjoy your tape. If you checked it out on Friday at 8 PM, it wasn’t due back on Sunday 8 PM. Oh no. It was due back Saturday at eight. Heaven forbid you rented that copy of The Goonies the night the clocks changed for Daylight Savings. It would be a paradox of Asimovian proportions.

One could see it every Friday at Blockbuster when that week’s new titles dropped. The pressure of the “Two Day” rental looming. Since the video store had around only 50 copies of a fresh release in stock, you could almost guarantee a hot topic then like, say, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves starring Kevin Costner (shut up. It was the second highest grossing film of 1991. Only Terminator 2 topped it, and that tape always pulled a Jimmy Hoffa), would be gonesville before you got there. It wasn’t just because of the limited stock—although that was a prime suspect—but you had to physically wait until a renter dropped off their copy within the allotted time frame. Otherwise fees. Unfair fees. Like when you pay two bucks to a parking meter for an hour of wait time only to have it exceeded and the cop slips a fifty dollar ticket under your wiper. I understand inflation (no I don’t), but really?

Said fees meant that when you had to return Back To The Future before lightning struck you’d miss payments on next month’s mortgage. So return time was—albeit scattershot over the course of your average Friday or Saturday night—quite rigid but also random. I saw many a beleaguered Blockbuster clerk at the return window sweating like a day trader and very pissed off with humanity on numerous Friday nights. I myself once waited—measuring the degree of my smarts—at the same desk for over two hours to get a new release in my hot little hands for that Saturday night’s viewing until my patience paid off. Who-hoo! The 400 Blows, you are mine! I was 12. I thought it was softcore. Forgive me.

So what’s my point with all of this? Faithful readers (all five of you), you know I have some pretzel logic intertwined with my trips down whatever lane takes me at a given moment. The point is thus: it used to be kind of a quest to find the movie you sought at your local VHS emporium, akin to us poor folks scouring the discount DVD aisles at FYE. A search, a goal most holy. We had no Netflix, no Hulu, no YouTube back in the Reagan years. Movies we wanted weren’t a click away; we had no click to speak of. Beyond Blockbuster Video, Hollywood Video and the vagrant with the crack addiction and facial knife scars Video, the file share was dubbed tapes swapped between one another’s living rooms. It was the frontier, sweet Jeebus.

Later when we tired of the big hits, we were pioneers seeking out the indie/foreign sh*t. We had to uncover enclaves of video renters/salesfolk to score the dope we so dearly needed. Hitchcock films pre-PsychoBarry Lyndon from Kubrick. The director’s cuts for films that had no director’s cuts. The local SafeWay was for wanting. Us video renters who were serious in keeping our mitts on a video for as long as we needed, however long that took (admittedly porn didn’t take much time) to dissect and enjoy every angle, we sought out the indie shops.

I recall the ur-speakeasy video shop in my little burg. It was the first video rental—indie or otherwise—in the area, and ultimately the last. It even had a cool, all-knowing name: Omni Video.

The place was a shack. It had a cool slanted roof made entirely of skylights, both highlighting the merch and ensure the clerks clear profiles would be well silhouetted so to recount cops to who stole last three copies of Black Christmas. The joint squatted onto a stretch of practical highway in the shadow of the local Burger King, the lord of all it surveyed. It looked like the kind of place to dump a body. Back in my junior high days, me being a budding film buff (translation: score a mint copy of Return Of The Jedi in Korean) me mate and I sought out this relic. Sure, it had dozens of titles on the shelves. Right. Dozens. Like 24, not including pornos. The rest of the joint was cluttered with busted stereo equipment, shoddy VCRs stacked one upon the other like lilting checkers and I think I remember a rim or four to a Ford Mustang against the counter. Quality operation.

We came by having heard of the place with it’s out-of-it films for rent. I remember it as such we were looking for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. A controversial film at the time, which was why we wanted to check it out. The legit operations didn’t carry it, so we sold our white boy, suburban, swingin’-a-dead-cat-by-the-grave souls to Omni in search of our grail. The proprietor grunted and snuffled and didn’t give much a damn about ratings R, PG, X or Grade A; he’d put whatever we had into our paws so long as the price was right (a meager two bucks. Imagine that). We laid out five and crashed through the exit, very swiftly as the homunculus wielding the greasy wrench staggered out of the “sound studio.” A curious oregano-tainted smell followed him. Have a nice day.

Needless to say, we watched Brazil and failed to see what the whole hullabaloo was about. Again, I was 12. Ah well, Star Wars then. Again.

Back in the day, finding videos for an evening’s entertainment wasn’t as easy as Netflix. I’ve been their customer since its inception, 17 years. I only cashed in when the discount with the purchase of my first (and only, and still well-functioning) DVD machine. I suppose me being at the butt end of Gen X only I can truly appreciate the difference between renting VHS at your local church potluck, getting the DVDs you want via snail mail with no fines to streaming sh*t in your sleep, actual paying attention neither required nor necessary (hell, that’s how the Oscars are doled out, if you’re weighing any value in what you rent).

Renting videos for home viewing has come a long way. Hail convenience. Still, actual movie quality and respect for folks who take the overland route homeland to pick ’em apart/love ’em to pieces? It mostly goes unnoticed these days. Hail convenience.

But the quest shall always continue…


Somewhere in a corner of Passaic, NJ a revolution is brewing.

Kindly Mr Fletcher’s (Glover) video rental Be Kind Rewind is under siege. Not by more upscale competition. Not under the push of using 21st Century home video formats (eg: DVDs and digital streaming) rather than his worn-out library of VHS. Okay, maybe there’s a little flak from the city’s zoning commission. But overall, none of that is bearing down on his store’s reputation and imminent survival.

Nope. It’s all Jerry’s (Black) fault, him and his dopey conspiracies.

Jerry and Mike (Mos Def) have been Mr Fletcher’s loyal flunkies forever, and have been committed to shelling out movie fun to the neighborhood for years. But lately Jerry’s had a screw go loose. He’s convinced that the power plant he’s been living under in his beater trailer is messing with his mind. All those kilowatts? Seeping into his skull? Guy can barely think straight anymore. Jerry decides to do something drastic.

He lassos Mike into an act of sabotage: take down the generator. Of course it does not go well, and Jerry gets zapped to high heaven. The result? Well, besides more of Jerry’s manic behavior, he’s been magnetized! And thanks to his clumsiness (and an unbalanced, ionic pudding head), he’s wiped clean every tape in the shop! Blank! What’re they gonna do with no stock? What about their jobs? What’ll they tell Mr Fletcher?

Nothing. The show must go on.

Jerry concocts the wild idea that he and Mike “recreate” the titles of their defunct VHS library. Shoot their own versions! Starring them! Hey, gotta maintain customer loyalty, right?

Mike’s not too sure of this, but he doesn’t want to let Mr Fletcher down, either. What the hell. As a goof, he and Jerry do their best stab at a lo-fi version of Ghostbusters using whatever resources that happen to be lying around. Here’s hoping the neighbors will bite.

To their delight, they do. In fact, their amateur efforts prove to be even more popular and profitable than the polished Hollywood originals! So Jerry and Mike do the next logical thing: expand their fledgling empire. If these two local yokels can do what big deal actors and directors can, then why not let the whole gang in on the act? Friends, Passaic, countrymen, lend us your camcorders!

Everybody wants to be in showbiz…


Y’know, sometimes this blog can be a real drag. Night after night watching mediocre movies in hope that some bright spot pops though the clouds. After weeks of anti-binging on lame cinematic dross, one may as well pray for ever seeing the sun again, if only for single, fleeting beam.

In other words, it’s nice to get a breath of fresh air once in a while. Even if it’s quick, like Be Kind Rewind. Hell, I’ve watched many stinkers in a row, and any bright spot—be it of cinema or what a cop waves in your face well after 2 AM—will grab your attention and right quick. And no, Officer, I’ve been at home, reading the Bible and taking a hi-lighter to the Book of Revelation. Bless you.

So here’s what took a shine to me (haw haw):

I’ll admit it, I was wary about watching Rewind. The last Gondry movie covered at RIORI—the big screen adaptation of The Green Hornet—didn’t really deliver. It wasn’t bad, but I felt its shortcomings resulted from endless manhandling from the production side. That and too much Seth Rogen as Seth Rogen.

It’s wonky plot device of Jack Black’s brain getting magnetized via an analog to how The Flash got his powers didn’t sound so hot either. I guess Barry Allen’s light speed and Jack Black hyperdrive onscreen histrionics created to have the almighty Maguffin shoved into play both are too demented to lend much depth to a neighborhood, ensemble comedy. If there was any depth to delve about a crumbling video store and its patrons, that is.

Finally, I wasn’t too keen on seeing another flick with Jack Black’s signature, over-caffinated shenanigans front, center and behind. Does he improv all his lines? How about his everything? You wanna watch a low-key manic Black? 1998’s Enemy Of The State. Really. He did have an acting career back then.

Well, it took me about to the second act to come around to Rewind. All that fiddle-faddle with the defragged VHS and the kooky idea of amateur recreations of classic (and not so classic) movies was the hook. An Andy Kaufman-esque way of getting the crowd to go along with Gondry’s vision. I got punked. I endured 20-plus minutes of slapstick and forehead-slapping to get to, “Oh, I see.”

I found my patience ultimately rewarded.

Rewind is lighthearted—more so than usual—but more than a little goofy for a Gondry flick. Sure, Hornet was a lark; a tongue-in-cheek action movie with lots of kung fu, car chases, explosions and…Seth Rogen being Seth Rogen. But Rewind is laid back, where the former was manic and often stiff. Rewind‘s a casual affair, once getting beyond the self-conscious silliness. That and keeping the man-who-sh*ts-napalm-as-delivery on a firm leash. A lot of that restraint has to do with Mos Def as Mike, but more on that later.

Like I said before, it took me a bit to cozy up to Rewind, and only after I figured out what the film really is. Be Kind Rewind is what I like to call a “neighborhood movie.” The immediate setting of the film is a character in itself, no less than the principal players. For example, consider Spike Lee’s very hot afternoon around Sal’s Pizza in Do The Right Thing. Or Wang and Auster’s metaphysical Smoke, where the cigar  shop in a Brooklyn corner is tentpole to the story proper (made concrete by Harvey Keitel’s character’s daily morning snapshot ritual of his store). We had Rocky running around South Philly. Maybe even the 4077th in MASH (the movie not the TV show, you hipsters. Play nice), its endless drab canvas curtains against the antics of Trapper John, Hawkeye and Duke (again, movie, and shave off that beard) with their vaudevillian nose-thumbing at ineffectual authority.

Rewind also has this feeling of cozy community at its heart. All the players here are pretty relatable, and could be found in Downtown, Anywhere, USA. You know the kinds, folks you could pick up out of a line up, pointing a finger and saying, “Yep, that’s him. I know that guy.” We have ourselves an ensemble cast to play with. Not to worry, they’re not all characters off an old Edgar Wallace Plot Wheel. There’s some actual warmth here, where one could easily slide into the background yet still have some small value. It helps you find a window to invest some time with the townsfolk in Passaic and actually care about their lives, too. And this in a Jack Black vehicle! I just as shocked as you are.

What starts with a zany premise gently evolves into nostalgia, always a powerful potion to gain an audiences’ sway. Like I recounted in my above, fevered, drunken, rambling tale of glory in pre-Netflix movie rental acquisition (is that a great line of bullish*t or what?), sometimes seeking out a movie—be it in a theatre, Blockbuster or hole-in-the-wall behind the Chow Mien Palace—is better than actually seeing the bloody movie. It can be a shared experience, later to be recounted with fellow distant film fans within the neighborhood. We found it! The Lost Dutchman’s Mine! Don’t tell anyone! And Brazil shoved into the VCR! Ha-ha! Hail Satan!

So, like the folks in Mr Fletcher’s Jersey neighborhood, relying on the only—however obsolete but still amaranthine (look it up, you hipster trash)—video shop to spend an evening away from their dreary routine. They are us. They are the neighborhood, and since the newsstand and soda fountain have gone the way of the T Rex, all can chew the fat about sh*t they saw Friday night. I know I’m leaning well into the wind with sentimentality, but before FaceBook, The Walking Dead and urgent, instant music opinions (things which never had a physical gathering place) the local vid store was the place to go to share pop culture opinions with strangers and regulars alike. And record stores don’t count, either. Not really. Face it: you only argued with yer bud about the merits of Permanent Waves against Moving Pictures in the store, them or the clerk. Negative to comic shops, too. All you need there is matching sneakers and welcome to the cult. You still sporting that scruffy thing on your jaw?

Simply put, Gondry did a very good, pleasantly subtle job making Be Kind Rewind the center of the neighborhood over a continuum, not some vital historical edifice (though later it was but not really but definitely later. Just wait and see and mind that return fee). The homey atmosphere was achieved with charm, winks and nostalgia for things now so long gone. And never in hurry. It was helped with some pretty decent acting from our leads who are known for not being—what’s the word?—contained. It looks like Gondry had a leash all right, but slack. Maybe only as tight as necessary.

So what about Mos and Black, our heroes? The odd couple. Movie fanboys incarnate. Who’d’ve thunk a streetwise rapper and Bozo-on-speed would have such decent chemistry? Sure, it’s in a Three Stooges Minus One kind of way, but tempering their usual personas, Gondry coaxes a mild but self-conscious silliness as well as a “kids in a candy store” vibe. It’s cute, and by this I mean endearing. It’s understood they’re both cinema buffs, otherwise they wouldn’t be at Mr Fletcher’s dying albatross. They may misunderstand each other outright, but when the “opportunity” to recreate the movies comes to the fore, both concede and get down to business: having fun. Even this being a film with Black’s over enthusiasm, only to be tempered by Mos’ hangdog and hidden grin, it’s akin to my video rental store paradigm. Movies bring strangers and weirdoes together, for better or worse.

Rewind is the anti-High Fidelity. I know, I know. That’s another Jack Black quip-fest I covered here. Shut it. I’m going to make it relevant (try to). Instead of ugly snobs scaring off business/snaring customers into their trace element, arcane knowledge of movies gone by, we get Mike and Jerry sharing the wealth. Movies all around for anyone who likes ’em, bush league or major! The film’s heart feels to me a tribute to DIY filmmaking; those goofy kids back in the 70s with their Super 8s trying to be Camino. Witnessing Mike and Jerry’s ramshackle yet entertaining efforts—and eventually the entire neighborhood’s contributions—it slowly but surely came to my attention that Rewind was a secret love letter to us old fuds from Gen X—perhaps before then—although streaming video is convenient, it lacks interaction. It denies the time to reflect. Sorta like social media; immediacy does not necessarily mean urgency, if you hear what I’m screaming. In other words, rub some elbows now and again.

At the end of the day, Rewind spoke to the movie geek in me, and not in an ugly, pointed way like, say, Altman’s The Player (he directed MASH, right?). I guess the best word to describe Rewind is a term I know I have never used here at RIORI without a scintilla of irony: whimsical. I started out hating this movie, off-put by Black’s usual schtick, Mos’ slouched performance and what seemed to be the usual “community, unite!” paradigm. Okay, there was a decent helping of that codswallop, but it was a cute bait-and-switch. A ruse. Rewind was all and none of that. It moment by moment became the oft-dreaded “feel good” movie, but also holding some weight within social commentary. Honest, emotional weight. That’s usually better than just a nostalgia trap, don’cha think?

Rewind‘s a specimen that you just gotta see to get. It’s understood by now that the thing appealed to my inner (and ofter outer) movie geek. It did it slowly though, carefully and thoughtfully. Gondry tricked me into this film. I couldn’t stand the first act. You? Stand it. It’ll be rewarding, I assure you.

But this fu*king copy of Brazil—gummed up with peanut butter and too much porn—in my dad’s VHS I got is over 30 years late (even ignoring the Y2K scam). And this f*cking trunk is f*cking heavy. Guess I own the fool tape now. And it’s in Portuguese, dammit. Not the trunk. Korean, as usual.


 The Verdict

Rent it or relent it? Rent it (so to speak). It takes a while to warm up, but Be Kind Rewind is ultimately satisfying. Just be patient, unlike Blockbuster on a Friday night with those checked out copies of Dances With Wolves. Damn you, Costner. Damn you to heck.


Stray Observations…

  • Wait. Was that Steve “The Colonel” Cropper on the train? By golly, it was. Awesome!
  • “Why does it do that when you do that?” To get to the next act, duh.
  • “I like your ensemble.” Wink.
  • The “pizza effects” were funny and brilliant. A salute to the lo-fi ethos at work.
  • “It’s a country, not a verb!” That’s what I told ’em!
  • Is all of this simply a nod of appreciation for all DIY filmmakers out there? I’d like to know so.
  • “He don’t like remakes…”
  • Film brings people together. You’re reading this blog, ain’t ya?

 Next Installment…

“We cannot glimpse the essential life of a caged Animal, only the shadow of its former beauty.” – Julia Allen Field


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.