The Gospel: 'Cadillac Records' Offers A Slice Of The Chicago Blues Legacy

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

For those who don't know a fig about the Chicago music scene in the 50's into the early 60's, will receive a loose crash course when viewing the new film, Cadillac Records which opened in limited theaters this past weekend. Cadillac Records chronicles the life and times of Chicago recording label Chess Records, and the artists that made musical history on the label's black waxes. Chess Records' roster of artists include Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Little Walter, Howlin' Wolf and Etta James and all of their stories are briefly told in this quick paced yet stylish flick.

Cadillac Records begins with a struggling businessman named Leonard Chess (played effectively by Adrian Brody) and his dreams of doing something bigger with his life. He begins by first opening up a club which is one of the few in Chicago that is open to Blacks, but he becomes interested in making "race records" (a term used back then for a Black artist's record) and starts up Chess Records in the late 1940's. His first recruiter is a young sharecropper, named Muddy Waters (Jeffery Wright), who encompasses the label's direction of straight up Blues, but with a more electric and rock n' roll feel. From there Chess Records builds up its quota by adding in the likes of harmonica player, Little Walter (Columbus Short) and Water's Blues competitor, Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker). Chess Records hits it's peak when Chuck Berry (Mos Def) and Etta James (Beyonce) arrive on the scene....

*How did Beyonce really do and why Mos Def should've been given more screen time after the jump...*

Cadillac Records does give a fairly good outline of what Chess Records and it's artists were all about, but still there are some holes missing that got some musicologists hot under the collar upon its release. The timeline of the record label is so "blink and you'll miss it" as characters pop up without any sort of explanation and some characters (especially Cedric the Entertainer's Willie Dixon, who narrates but is practically incognito throughout the film) are given limited background info. Then there is the biggie omission of Phil Chess, Leonard's brother and co-founder of the label.

This one such omission, irked me throughout the film as it feels like he didn't even exist, but he did and for someone who knew of the Chess Brothers co-founding ship, it was practically nagging to me that it was excluded. Still the music (oh, Lordy the music!) keeps the flick anchored as I found myself humming along. Actors Jeffery Wright and an energetic Mos Def, were spot on as their characters as was Columbus Short's comedic outlet of Little Walter. And I'm vocal that Mos Def deserved more screen time as he was Chuck Berry in every sense. Then there is Beyonce, whose Etta James portrayal got the longest song performances and of course a "big" drug addiction scene. Sure Ms. Knowles gets Brownie Points for at least attempting and being less wooden than in 2006's Dreamgirls, but when you're up against heavyweights like Brody and Wright, a bad egg in the basket is easily spotted. Still she gets a thumbs-up for bringing some emotion to the James classic, "I'd Rather Go Blind" (what?!? Not "At Last"?) and doing the water works on time.

All in all, Cadillac Records is worth scoping out, especially if you are a music nut, like myself and if you enjoy a film that embodies the soulful spirit. Still be warned that if you're a stickler for historical accuracy, that you won't get the full back story, just really a slice of the Chess Records' legacy pie.

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