Captivitating R&B Film Needs More Early Artists
As a music history buff, I was excited to hear about the release of Cadillac Records, a movie depicting the beginning of rock ‘n’ roll and its relation to R&B and the blues. However, it was only released in a few theaters, and by the time I could escape town to see it, it was long gone. That’s why I was thrilled to discover that it’s now on DVD.
Cadillac Records is based on the rise and fall of Chess Records, the primary recording label of Chicago Blues artists in the 1950s and 1960s. It begins with the stories of two men who eventually meet: a Delta bluesman, the legendary Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), and Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody), a young man from a poor Polish immigrant family.
Chess opens a club catering to blacks on the south side of Chicago, but he knows that the real money is in promoting “race records.” Chess and Waters meet, and when Chess’ nightclub suspiciously burns down, he uses the insurance money to open Chess Records. Muddy, along with the volatile harpist Little Walter (Columbus Short), signs with Chess. As Leonard signs more talent, he becomes richer, but the artists don’t see much of the money. Instead, Leonard buys them Cadillacs, the ultimate sign of success.
Cadillac Records accurately depicts the demoralizing state of that music era. Illiterate rural bluesmen sign away their royalties to record labels. Payola scandals are evident (with Eric Bogosian playing the infamous Alan Freed). Artists are plagued with personal and societal problems: racism, violence, sex, alcohol, and drugs. White teen idols become rich and famous from copying black music. On the upside, though, we see segregation challenged as Chicago policemen ineffectively try to handle white teenagers bopping in the dance halls to Chuck Berry (Mos Def) live.
Most movies based on actual events take liberties with the truth, and Cadillac Records is no exception. Major historical inaccuracies flood this movie. Among them are the absence of Phil Chess, Leonard’s brother and Chess partner. The timelines are disputable and confusing. And I found it irritating that major Chess artists weren’t given their due. Berry plays such a minor role in the movie compared to his contribution, and there’s no mention of the great Bo Diddley, another artist on the label. On the other hand, too large a part of the film centers on the troubled Etta James (a miscast Beyoncé Knowles). Though Knowles belts out Etta’s tunes, she just isn’t believable as James. Perhaps if the character played a lesser role, this would have gone unnoticed.
That said, the story and musical performances are captivating; Wright and Short are phenomenal; and Eamonn Walker steals the show as Howlin’ Wolf. Though Cadillac Records may leave you wanting for more of your favorite Chess artist, it still gives you that brief fix of early R&B.
(Released by Sony Pictures and rated “R” for pervasive language and some sexuality.)
Review also posted at www.nightsandweekends.com.