A Music History
Cadillac Records is what I like to refer to as an iTunes movie: meaning, that as I walk out of the theater I cannot wait to get home so I can download some of the great music I just heard. Yes, I pay. In this case, I purchased the complete album.
The movie focuses on a part of music history that often gets lost among the ranks of Elvis, Motown, and the British invasion, but is no less important. In fact, it may even be the most important part of rock and roll history.
It’s the history of the Chess Records label and the film follows it from its origins when a young man from Mississippi named McKinley Morganfield heads north to Chicago to make a name for himself as a bluesman named Muddy Waters. There to meet him is an ambitious young club owner named Leonard Chess, who uses bribery and any other trick at his disposal to get Muddy some radio airtime. Next thing you know, his nightclub has “mysteriously” burned up and the insurance money pays for a top-of-the line recording studio.
The studio quickly earns the nickname Cadillac Records because everyone who records there is soon behind the wheel of one. In addition to Waters, Chess Records was home to talents such as Little Walter, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, and Etta James, all future members of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Still, if there is anything that recent musical biographies have taught us, it is that there is nothing easy in the music business and the history of Chess Records is no exception. Internal rivalries, violence, drugs, alcohol, and even statutory rape threaten to tear down everything they have worked so hard to create. Sadly, it wouldn’t be until years later, when Waters accepts the Rolling Stones’ invitation to come to England, that he would finally realize just how worldwide his and Chess’s impact was felt.
Directed by Darnell Martin, Cadillac Records is far from flawless. The framing narration by Cedric the Entertainer’s Willie Dixon just never feels right and I often felt as if the film was rather clumsily put together, as if maybe a scene here and there were deleted, causing a rather awkward transition between two scenes that weren’t originally intended to take place back to back. For instance, there is one moment when Muddy and Little Walter are preparing to perform what is built up to be a much-needed comeback song… and the film suddenly cuts to Beyonce’s Etta James performing “At Last.” The introduction of Chuck Berry is also strangely timed.
These are minor complaints, however, as I really did enjoy this film. It’s worth seeing if only for the music alone. This is some of the greatest music of the 1950s and 60s performed by some of today’s most talented artists. Even non-singer Jeffrey Wright does an excellent job performing the music of Muddy Waters.
Columbus Short had the film’s biggest showstopper with “My Babe,” and the performance that stood out the most to me was Mos Def. In fact, I’d almost recommend seeing this movie strictly for his performance alone. He steals the show immediately as Chuck Berry and it’s rather a shame that he’s only in the film for twenty minutes or so. For as crucial as Muddy Waters was to creating Chess Records, Berry was really the company’s golden goose and the film makes the argument that he almost single-handedly broke the rockand roll color barrier. Unfortunately, his desire for young white women is what eventually led to his downfall and, in a way, the downfall of the company itself.
The story of Chess Records is fascinating and very well told by Martin and her cast and crew; and as I’ve said already the music is fantastic. These are interesting personalities, many of whom probably could be subjects of their own musical biographies. I’m especially intrigued by Etta James. Was her father really… no, I won’t give it away for anyone who hasn’t heard.
If I have one more complaint about the movie, it’s that the closing titles were flashed on and off the screen so quickly that I didn’t have time to fully read them. I guess I’ll have to finish them upon a second viewing. I wouldn’t mind.
Cadillac Records is rated R for “pervasive language and some sexuality.” It’s mostly the foul language that warrants this rating, but there are actually a couple scenes of violence that contribute as well.
Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of Cadillac Records.