Darnell Martin’s ‘biopic’ about Chess Records from its inception through to the death of Leonard Chess in 1969 is rather like a series of ‘tableaux vivants’ with musical accompaniment. Nearly 30 years of complex interaction is reduced to a series of simplistic interludes that do no favours to the modern actors who must impersonate these musical giants.
To be fair, the reproduction of the music that made Chess such a force is generally well-handled, even if it does focus on a small and predictable handful of Chess artists such as Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry and Etta James. However, the relationships offstage and off-mike are resolutely one-dimensional; Muddy hates Wolf, Walter loves Geneva, Muddy envies Chuck, Chuck sleeps in his car to save money, everyone mistrusts Chess and so on …..
Cars are big in ‘Cadillac Records’ with Cadillacs acting as a predictable metaphor for success and a useful symbol for the passage of time. However Cadillacs have other functions as well ; Chuck Berry’s car doubles as his hotel room where he ‘entertains’ eager young white female fans. Little Walter’s growing recklessness is symbolised by the way he removes all the doors of his Cadillac and the irretrievable breakdown of his relationship with Muddy Waters and Chess is summarised by him driving the car through a wall and wrecking the foyer at Chess Studios.
Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess and Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters in ‘Cadillac Records’
Initially, the movie seems to focus on the relationship between Chess & Waters and this is promising, as Adrien Brody and Jeffrey Wright are good enough actors to carry an across-the-racial-divide story of how Chess (among others) brought black music to white audiences in the 1960’s. There is potentially quite a good movie there to be made about how Chuck Berry capitalised on the early inroads made by Muddy and Wolf with a hybrid music that mixed country music with Delta Blues to give us early rock’n’roll.
Martin’s movie touches on this theme – briefly – but this movie is an ensemble piece and above all is like one of those Motortown Review packages that Berry Gordy used to send out around the States with Stevie Wonder and Mary Wells and The Contours and Marvin Gaye, plus others, all mc’d by a local DJ and crammed into a 60-minute package where there’s time for everyone’s latest hit, but not much more.
There’s also an inescapable feeling that somebody did some fast talking to bump up the role of Etta James as played by Beyonce Knowles in this film. Without wishing to decry the work of a fine singer, there is no way that Etta James was ever the ‘Diana Ross’ of Chess records – she simply never had that degree of prominence or success. Chess was about male blues singers – Muddy, Chuck, The Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lowell Fulsom, Jimmie Rodgers, Little Walter and Bo Diddley – to name the principals. Chess did work with Etta James in the 60’s as well as Koko Taylor and Sugar Pie de Santo, but they never had the same degree of success with women singers as Motown did.
Chess’ affair with Etta late on in the day seems almost an afterthought – did it ever really happen? Etta’s drug addiction is depicted as being very much of the soft-focus romantic variety – no shakes or vomiting or cooking spoons here.
The movie ends with Chess selling the label and literally walking out of the studio as Etta tearfully performs ‘I’d rather go blind’. Chess gets into his Cadillac and drives off, sufering a fatal heart attack as he goes and coasting gently to the kerb. Poetic licence? In reality it was months after the sale that Chess died but the movie’s admirers would no doubt argue that documentary accuracy is not the name of the game here. Whilst this may be a bit anachronistic in these postmodern times, I actually prefer my biographies to adhere a little more closely to the truth.
As mentioned earlier, the real story here is the way in which entrepreneurs like Jim Stewart, Ahmet Ertegun, Berry Gordy and Leonard Chess managed to repackage the ‘race music’ of the 1940’s and sell it to white audiences as well as the black audiences for whom it was intended.
There’s one rather amusing scene in ‘Cadillac Records’ showing a very polite segregated audience at a Chuck Berry gig simply removing the rope that runs down the middle of the auditorium, separating black from white. Within thirty seconds, black guys are dancing with white girls and white guys are jiving fit to bust with black girls. Yeah, right, as if….. and that’s the real problem with ‘Cadillac Records’ – it trivialises and therefore diminishes some of the issues faced by pioneers like Gordy and Chess and Stewart.
In summary, there’s still a great movie to be made about how this handful of entrepreneurs sold black music to white America and how that became one engine in the fight to slowly erode centuries of prejudice (sadly, still an ongoing process rather than a done deal some 50 years on). Unfortunately, ‘Cadillac Records’ is not that movie…….