Blues Dues: Cadillac Records shines a light on the overlooked early blues music business.
Thursday, December 4, 2008
For fans of a certain style of American roots music – those for whom the names Muddy Waters, Etta James, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon and Little Walter resonate – Darnell Martin’s musical biopic Cadillac Records, a dramatized look at the legendary Chess Records, is the most eagerly anticipated movie since Ray. It turns out to be grittier and more lowdown than that Ray Charles bio – more akin to the punk rock saga What We Do Is Secret than a worshipful history lesson.
Writer-director Martin, a TV veteran (Law & Order), takes a “we’re all in this together, motherf****r” position on the eternal question of who screwed whom when it comes to black entertainers making music for white businessmen. “Race music” producer Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) is a Polish-Jewish junk dealer who opens a nightclub and recording studio on Chicago’s South Side and inks a stable of soon-to-be heraldic talents, showering them with shiny new Cadillacs. Chess was no saint. He greased their way with payola, dipped into one artist’s royalties to pay another’s bills, and charged his stars for their rides – no such thing as a free Eldorado. But he helped break the color line in the ’50s and recorded an enduring body of work.
Brody plays Chess as a hipster/hustler with a nose for funk, the “White Daddy” who never actually abuses his artists but enjoys running their lives for them. Their lives were generally pretty complicated, and all the principal actors rise to the occasion with more than a random whiff of violence. Former Mississippi Delta field hand and bluesman Waters (Jeffrey Wright, with conked hair) was a stud with a Stratocaster, at least until hulking Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker) came on the scene breathing smokestack lightning – don’t ever try to steal Wolf’s guitarist. Soul diva James (a transformed Beyoncé Knowles) brought energy to the label in the ’60s when its blues sound faltered on the charts – she was also a junkie as well as the boss’ main love thang. But the acting prize goes to Columbus Short as mercurial blues harp wizard Little Walter, the sort of dude who guns down copycats with his revolver. The movie is framed as a flashback reminiscence by composer Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), writer of many of the label’s hits.
The only major Chess artist missing is Bo Diddley. He’s the focus of the other Chess biopic hanging around waiting for its shot: director Jerry Zaks’ Who Do You Love, which takes a slightly different view of the era, reportedly because it ran into song licensing budget problems – Chuck Berry reportedly wanted too much. It’ll have a hard time topping Cadillac Records.
CADILLAC RECORDS (3) Directed by Darnell Martin. • Starring Emmanuelle Chriqui, Jeffrey Wright, Adrien Brody, Eamonn Walker and Beyoncé Knowles. • R, 109 min. • At Northridge Cinemas.