On New Year’s Day, we saw the film Cadillac Records. After drying our eyes, we sat for a few minutes in the empty theater speculating about why such a wonderful film hadn’t done better at the box office.
Since opening on December 5, it’s earned less than $8 million (as opposed to Marley & Me, $50-plus million in ten days), with the result that it has shown in fewer theaters every week since. The performances are remarkable, especially the protean Jeffrey Wright, one of the best actors who ever lived, Beyonce Knowles as Etta James and the British actor Eamonn Walker, who gives an astounding performance as Howlin’ Wolf.
This fictionalized account of Chicago’s Chess Records is not a documentary. Instead, it provides yet more evidence for Sandro Portelli’s wonderful quip that “Many of the most important stories are true but not accurate.” Director Darnell Martin makes you feel the braiding of personal experience, historical motion and musical influence that produced the broad category of music known as blues. Key personalities are illuminated in haiku-like flashes. I don’t know if Martin’s generous empathy is shaped by her gender, but the suffering of the men and women in the film is neither exaggerated nor romanticized. They are neither devils nor angels, just human beings whose lives are given shape and meaning through their creativity and the electric response it evokes. Catch it soon on the big screen, before it goes away.
One reason for its small audiences may be that the film couldn’t make itself heard through the promotional din generated by bigger-budget holiday-season titles. One of my companions had heard nothing of it. It was my reading aloud A.O. Scott’s ecstatic review in the New York Times that convinced everyone it would be worth trekking out to a multiplex to catch the 11 am show on a holiday Thursday.
Another factor may have been mixed reviews, though it’s always hard to say how much reviews affect box-office (e.g., Marley & Me, again, has attracted more negative reviews and many times the income). The reviewers who didn’t like Cadillac Records focused almost entirely on a single complaint expressed in various terms, “too many characters,” “unfocused,” “packed.” This troubles me, because it expresses the hegemony of a certain type of story, the kind where you are brought into tight focus on a single character or small ensemble with whom you empathize and who function as the viewer’s guide and surrogate within the story. There is no denying this is a powerful mode of storytelling, but with the close-up bias of television, it has become almost our only one. What’s left out is scope, history, the full complexities of an individual’s interaction with the spirit of the times.
That was my complaint about Milk: well-acted, well-made and moving, politically right on—so many good things. Yet, especially for someone like myself who lived in San Francisco in those days and saw the period unfold firsthand, the tight focus on Harvey Milk and his intimates left out so much of the complexity and richness of the story that it felt much too incomplete.
A week before Harvey Milk and George Moscone were assassinated, Jim Jones presided over the mass death of more than 900 individuals who’d traveled with him from San Francisco to establish a terribly twisted “socialist paradise,” in Jones’ own words. My husband-to-be and I were buying wedding announcements in a paper store when the proprietors broadcast a radio report on November 27 that Milk and Moscone had been murdered; on the way there, we’d remarked on the graffiti that had covered freeway underpasses since the People’s Temple deaths on the 21st: “Guyana A-Go-Go” and “Punks for People’s Temple” stick in my mind. We were married a few days later as part of the first batch of weddings permitted after San Francisco City Hall reopened.
As everyone who has lived through a momentous time knows, the fullness of first-person experience can never be completely reproduced by a film or any other mode of storytelling. Cadillac Records didn’t feature the street-level civil rights movement that formed its backdrop, but the multiplicity of stories and the mixed motives of characters made it unmistakeable that something very complex and rich was going on while these individuals’ lives unfolded. Each story was different, the way it is with real people; what all the main characters had in common was social class, a desperate desire to escape poverty and its degradations, sometimes at any cost. Too bad the debased condition of popular criticism effectively put the film over so many reviewer’s heads.
Finally, I think that Cadillac Records also failed to make boffo box office because it was cast as a “black movie,” and that audience simply isn’t large enough to generate a critical mass of audience. That is a sad and sorry truth, still, less than three weeks prior to the inauguration of our first African American President, but it must be said.