Chronicling the rise of blues label Cadillac Records this rollicking musical charts the emergence of the blues musicians as popular hit makers and leads up to the birth of rock and roll. Focusing on several well-known early blues and rock legends Cadillac Records mixes issues of race infidelity payola violence and other things -- providing a turbulent backdrop for its portrait of an era full of great talent and great heartache. It starts in 1947 when bar owner Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) hires a young blues combo: guitar wizard Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and an edgy harmonica player Little Walter (Columbus Short). This leads to a record deal and the formation of Chess label company. With other musicians such as Big Willie Dixon (Cedric The Entertainer) and Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) the label is rolling nicely down its own track when in 1955 Chuck Berry (Mos Def) walks through the door. Rock and roll is born taking Chess and his artists to the mainstream. Drug addiction drinking women tragedy and personal relationships -- including Chess’ own with a new discovery Etta James (Beyonce Knowles) -- form the core of this engrossing showcase paying tribute to those who paved the way. The ensemble cast that forms the heart of Cadillac Records is brilliant. Wright is powerful and surprisingly musical as the legendary Muddy Waters. Short (Stomp the Yard) is an impressive newcomer as the erratic but supremely talented Little Walter the Tupac of his time. Brit Walker (Prison Break) is particularly compelling to watch explosive and vibrant as Howlin Wolf Muddy Waters’ chief rival. Best of all is Mos Def alive and hilarious as the unpredictable Berry. His musical sequences are a highlight and his Berry impersonation really gives the man himself a run for his money. Also standing out is an amusing Cedric the Entertainer as the appropriately named Big Willie Dixon and Gabrielle Union fine as always as Muddy’s long-suffering wife. Brody as the head of the company is largely unsympathetic as the conniving Chess but the actor does manage to convey his drive and ultimate concern for the livelihood of his stable of musicians. Then there’s the sensational Dreamgirl Beyonce (who also co-produced) as the inimitable Etta James. She not only sings up a storm with such James standards as “At Last ” she proves she can really act in a couple of rousing dramatic moments. Writer/director Darnell Martin (I Like It Like That) manages to bring an energy and informed musicality to Cadillac Records that sets it apart from other movies in the shopworn musical biopic genre. By focusing on a group of artists Martin manages to give each of her prodigious stars their own moment to shine. Wisely letting the cast do their own singing Martin manages to get an extra air of authenticity and electricity. Ultimately Cadillac Records is a stirring tribute to the artists who brought blues and rock into the mainstream and even through personal tragedy and financial problems manages to finally get their just rewards. This unheralded 2008 sleeper hit sneaking into theatres just before the holiday crunch is a gem.
After being honorably discharged from the Navy Elvis (Gael Garcia Bernal) heads home. With only his duffel bag and rifle he seems an aimless and penniless drifter but Elvis knows exactly where he’s going: Corpus Christi Texas to find his estranged father (William Hurt). Now a locally renowned pastor David Sandow has absolved himself of any and all sins he committed before “becoming a Christian ” which includes his illegitimate son with whom he wants no contact. So Elvis goes behind the pastor’s back and forges a relationship with his pristine naïve teenage daughter--and in reality Elvis’ half-sister--Malerie (Pell James). When her brother (Paul Dano) a teenager who wears the Bible on his sleeve threatens to reveal their love affair everything changes irrevocably. If The King were to ever get more than a very limited release in American theaters as many as three of the actors could vie for Oscar noms. Leading the way is Bernal (in his first English-speaking role) who may have the most esteemed resume of any contemporary actor (Y Tu Mama Tambien Amores Perros Bad Education The Motorcycle Diaries and Cannes’ most buzzed-about film this year Babel are just a few). His Elvis is impenetrable and still there’s a sense of menace--which is a feat no actor has pulled off this side of Brokeback Mountain; Oscar-worthy. Hurt fresh off his Oscar nom for A History of Violence again shows us why he’s one of the best most versatile in the biz. He embodies a man whose crisis of faith is but the tip of the iceberg following a role that couldn’t have been more the opposite; Oscar-worthy. James (Undiscovered) can’t quite succeed in obscuring her beauty but she does everywhere else lending a naïveté and an uncanny Southern accent to Malerie who’s 13 years younger than James herself; Oscar-worthy. And Dano gives perhaps the most haunting albeit very brief performance as a misguided teenager hurt more than helped by his dad’s heavy hand.
The King will ruffle more than a few feathers in the Jerry Falwell--and perhaps George W. Bush--sect for its thinly veiled take on Christianity and religion altogether. Well praise the Lord! Finally someone has used the medium of film for something besides a CGI test drive potentially spurring--dare we say--healthy debate in the process. That someone is British director James Marsh who co-wrote the film with Milo Addica (Monster's Ball). Together the two are careful to never assign condemnation to any one character and they touch upon every single dark almost gothic theme imaginable resulting in a film as engrossing as it is galvanizing. And the cinematography is so beautiful it surpasses CGI with landscapes so lush and vivid they look surreal. All of these elements pooled together form a story reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet or something Faulkner might concoct if he were around. But again for its sinful look at Christianity good luck finding it in (American) theaters.