It was one of those Saturdays where I avoided doing anything related to work. Searching through the instant queue to find an entertaining distraction, I came across a movie I usually have no interest in seeing. I’m not a huge fan of the biopic genre, and a film on the beginnings of an iconic record company sounded more in the realm of a documentary than something I want to waste my time on.
However, I decided to try it.
“Cadillac Records” stars Adrian Brody as Leonard Chess, the founder of Chess records and the talent he had working for him over a 20 year span. Already, I saw problems with the film. The premise is way off since Leonard co-founded the record company with his brother, Phil. In the movie, Leonard frequently refers to his impoverished childhood, yet no word of his brother is mentioned. (Although he is listed in the credits you have no idea that Shiloh Fernandez is supposed to be Phil. When he’s on screen, there is nothing to indicate that he is nothing more than a sound engineer). However, I decided to stick with it and the results were surprising.
The story is cleverly narrated from the perspective of songwriter, Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), and chronicles the record company’s upbringing through the lives of the artists and their relationship with Chess.
It is the introduction of the artists that makes the film worth watching. When we first meet sharecropper Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), we get a sense of musical history that doesn’t bore nor insult the intelligence of the viewer. These artists, who started out in obscurity, faced racism and underhanded dealings from their “daddy” Chess. The Cadillacs they all drove were bought against their royalties, something that Howlin Wolf (Eammon Walker) and Chuck Berry (Mos Def) didn’t go for.
As the success of Chess records increases, so do the insecurities and addictions of the artists. Waters’ jealousy of Howlin Wolf causes him to try to steal away one of Wolf’s band-members, leading to a violent result. His addiction to women also causes him to continually ask his “daddy” Chess for money. Between the child support and the palimony suits, Muddy gives away more money than he takes in. However, what could have easily been another cliché instead turns into a comment on the unscrupulous practices of the record business.
Other tragedies that play out are at the height of his career as Chuck Berry gets locked up for taking a white underage girl across state lines. This was one problem that daddy couldn’t fix.
Then there is the short, sad life of harmonica virtuoso Little Walter (Columbus Short). We see through a series of events how he goes from one taste of liquor from Muddy’s flask to a down-on-his-luck heroin addict.
While the drama plays out in the film, you get the sense that director Darnell Martin wanted this to be about something more than the beginnings of a record company. However, his need to give nearly every artist and Chess their own subplot led to an uneven mix of voices that didn’t always work.
Case in point – when Etta James (Beyonce) appears on the screen, there is no sense that she was one of Chess’ biggest recording artists. She, along with Chuck Berry, helped the Chicago sound crossover into pop music. Instead, Etta is portrayed as someone with whom Chess fails to fulfill a sexual fantasy that is hinted at throughout the film.
The music is the best part of the movie. After all, this is about a groundbreaking record company. From Waters’ “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” to James’ “At Last” (sung on the soundtrack by Wright and Beyonce), we are reminded why Chess Records, at one time, rivaled the Motown sound.
In short, “Cadillac Records” wasn’t a complete waste of time and succeeded in keeping me distracted for a couple of hours. But next time I think I’ll listen to the album instead.